7) Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City: a dreamlike ode to Prague

Photo: Petrov publishing

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is a fascinating ode to Prague, which explores the idea that somewhere in the city there is an entrance to another realm. This invisible, other Prague, is a bizarre, dream-like place, populated with ghosts, eccentric creatures, talking animals and glass statues, which can be entered at night-time through tiny doors, alleys or library corridors. It is a place where secret passages open up below our feet, libraries turn into jungles, and ocean waves leap behind our windows.

Michal Ajvaz,  photo: Ondřej Lipár,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Druhé město or The Other City is a second novel by Michal Ajvaz, published in 1993. The English translation of the book, by Gerald Turner, which came out in 2009, was voted by Amazon as one of the best novels in the genre of sci-fi and fantasy.

The story of The Other City begins in a second-hand bookstore in Prague, where the narrator discovers an unmarked volume bound in purple velvet, written in a strange alphabet.

"I realized that the alphabet in which the book was printed was not of this world. It was still a simple matter to ignore the crevice from which there wafted a disconcerting and alluring breath and allow it to become overgrown with a tissue of renewing circumstances. "It was not the first such encounter in my life. Like everyone, I had, on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere – in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. "The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. (The Other City, Gerald Turner translation, 2009).

As the narrator roams snow-covered Prague in his quest to understand the strange book, he starts to notice more and more the oddities in his familiar surroundings, until a whole ‘other city’ begins to open up to him. This alternative Prague, which exists on the fringes of the real city, becomes a symbol of all the worlds we are blind to because we are caught up in our own habits of seeing.

The more I pondered on it, the more I was inclined to think that it was indeed quite possible, that it corresponded to our lifestyle, to the way we lived in circumscribed spaces that we are afraid to leave. We are troubled by the dark music heard from over the border, which undermines our order. We fear what looms in the twilit corners; we don’t know whether they are broken or disintegrating shapes of our world, or the embryos of a new fauna, which will one day transform the city into its hunting ground – the vanguard of monsters slowly lurking its way through our apartments. […] And yet the world we have confined ourselves in is so narrow. Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border. We are familiar with the strange queasiness we feel when we encounter the reverse side of things and their inner cavities, which refuse to take part in our game: when we shove aside a cabinet during spring-cleaning and suddenly find ourselves looking at the ironically impassive face of its reverse side, which stares into dark chambers that are mirrored on its surface, when we unscrew wires, when we crawl under the bed for a pencil that rolled away […].

The Other City is often described as a fantasy novel, but according to writer and translator Lucy Duggan, it is very much about our own reality, the tenuousness of our connection with reality and about the act of reading itself.

"One thing The Other City very much reflects is actually something that we are looking for when we read. It is really about our search for meaning and about how whenever we find some things that seem meaningless, we always try to read meaning into them and make them meaningful. We try to make sense of the world even though it doesn’t make any sense. So it is about that desire for things to make sense and the desire for meaning, which is a very strong human desire.

Photo: Petrov publishing
"It’s a scary journey which the narrator embarks on. And the other realm that he is trying to understand is quite a frightening place, so it takes courage for him and for the other people who he meets in the novel for them to face up to the idea that there is some hidden meaning.

"There is always this double fear: they are afraid of the meaning that they will find but they are also afraid that everything could turn out to be meaningless. So there is this fear of the unknown and there is also this fear that maybe there isn’t any unknown and that there is nothing to find. And both of those are scary prospects."

Critics usually describe Ajvaz’s style as magic realism or surrealism, often comparing his writing to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges or Neil Gaiman. Lucy Duggan offers her own comparison:

"One comparison that comes to my mind, which is a bit of a different one, is with Iris Murdoch, the philosopher writer from Britain, who also was very interested in how language and meaning works. She didn’t write in this magical realist style which sometimes seems to be what links Ajvaz with the Latin American writers, but she was interested in similar questions, such as is there something under our language and is there something we can’t express with words which we could express if we had a different language.

"His style is very much his own. It’s a very sensual style. He often refers to sounds and smells and that’s one of the things that always keep me reading him. The beauty of the style is that it’s very poetic. You feel his enjoyment of words and you can really see that he is choosing his words with a lot of relish. So in some ways his predecessors might be more poets than novelists.”

The description of the ‘other city’, including its culture, architecture, and mythology is incredibly detailed and fascinating. There are elk stables hidden in the hollows of Prague's monuments, and midnight lectures taking place in its universities on the histories of unknown wars.

The narrator wanders through underground churches adorned with glass sculptures, filled with schools of fish and other sea creatures, through forgotten ruins and libraries that are home to jungles. He is pursued by weasels, shot at by a helicopter and nearly eaten by a shark-like creature.

"This rampant life of the library - the rotting and twisting of shelves, the swelling of books, the aggressive burgeoning of plants, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the pervasion of creatures - meant that the bookcases expanded and became bloated with the constant turmoil; the aisles between them became narrower; I was obliged to squeeze through gulches and cut myself a path through overgrown books with the machete."

Ajvaz’s novel is set in various shadowy locations around Prague, such as the belfry of St. Nicholas’s church, Petřín hill, Café Slavia or the Klementinum library. But Ajvaz also takes the narrator to the edge of the city, to the gray housing estates and deserted pubs on the outskirts. Although he is not explicitly writing about the socialist time or the aftermath of socialism, there are some suggestions of that within his writing, says Lucy Duggan.

"There are references to the idea of an underground, or a space where you go to retreat from the eyes of the state, and that’s often hinted at.

Lucy Duggan,  photo: David Vaughan
“And this whole idea of another realm, that of course also links with underground literature and people like Egon Bondy, who write about going into a sort of parallel world in order to keep creating culture when the state is dominating the public spaces.

“I think that is part of his work which makes you aware that you are reading about the 1990s when you read his novels, because there is still this kind of ghostly presence of that underground."

Michal Ajvaz is one of the many authors, who are fascinated by Prague, and his hometown comes up again and again in his writing. But although he draws on the literary tradition of Prague as a magical place with a mysterious identity, he presents his own, very unique interpretation, says Ms. Duggan:

"There is a long-running fascination with Prague among Czech authors and even non-Czech authors, like Umberto Eco, so that’s part of a whole tradition which he writes in.

“I think that holds a fascination for many authors because it’s such a rich tradition and there are so many stories and there are so many previous authors to connect to, not only people like Kafka, but also the other Czech writers writing in German or German-Czech writers, like Meyrink.

“So I think it’s maybe partly that that is fascinating to Ajvaz and which he then takes how own view of. He doesn’t repeat those old myths. He does his own, very specific reading of Prague and he only slightly refers to the kind of very familiar Prague myth."

So why should readers, from all of the books focused on Prague, choose to read The Other City?

"I think the reason I would pick it up right now is to think about this question of what are the boundaries of what we know and how those boundaries can change in a way that can both be scary and also be hugely enriching and rewarding, because we discover something new beyond the contours of what we thought was our everyday life."

The Other City doesn’t end with any twist or closure that would explain the existence of the mysterious other world or unveil more about the narrator himself. Instead, the author leaves the readers where they started.

"Fine, so I’ll leave here my book about meetings and the frontier. My future books will be written in the script of the other city and printed in nocturnal printing houses hidden behind coats in closets.

"Maybe some of my books will find their way onto the shelves of antiquarian bookstores. Maybe someone like me will take shelter from a blizzard or a rainstorm in a bookstore and gaze with wonder as a delicate female hand reaches from the other side to make a space between the volumes on the shelf and slip a book into it: the astonished customer will take out the book and stare at the pages covered in strange signs, before leaning forward and peering into the dark fissure remaining between the books on the shelf, where he will glimpse lights twinkling on a dark surface and smell the odor of stone passages."

Novelist, poet, critic, and translator Michal Ajvaz was born in Prague in 1949. He debuted as a writer in 1989 with a novel called Murder in the Hotel Intercontinental. His second novel, The Other City, was voted the year’s best novel in the Czech Republic. In 2005, he received the Jaroslav Seifert Prize for his novel Empty Streets and his novel The Luxembourg Gardens, published in 2011, won the Magnesia Litera for the Best Book of the Year. In addition to his fiction and poetry, Ajvaz has published monographs on Derrida and Borges.