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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Other City

Michal Ajvaz

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To purchase The Other City

Title: The Other City
Author: Michal Ajvaz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Other City - US
The Other City - UK
The Other City - Canada
The Other City - India
L'autre ville - France
L'altra Praga - Italia
  • Czech title: Druhé město
  • Translated by Gerald Turner

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Our Assessment:

B- : too enamored with its own fantastical conceits

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 20/4/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ajvaz's novel is a gorgeous matryoshka doll of unreason, enigma and nonsense -- truly weird and compelling." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Other City is a novel of another Prague, a second city layered largely invisibly behind the first, familiar one. Steeped in the fiction of Prague-based authors who dabbled in the mystical and fantastical, ranging from Kafka through Leo Perutz and Gustav Meyrink to Karel Čapek, and with a healthy dose of Borges thrown in for good measure, Ajvaz offers a semi-alternate-universe novel whose greatest appeal is the overlap of this secondary world with the first.
       It begins, as these things often do, with a book, written in a mysterious indecipherable script, and with a strange greenish glow to it. Trying to learn more about the script, the narrator discovers others have come across similar books -- and that they hold other-worldly powers, the world around the readers undergoing bizarre changes ("The piano turned into crabs and crept around the bedroom", etc.) as they open a portal to a different (sur-)reality found beside our own. As one person warns:

Just look at the artful and crafty expression in those letters ! It's an evil gangrene that will gradually overwhelm everything. The letters exhale a poison that discreetly and assiduously corrodes the familiar things of our world.
       But the narrator's curiosity has been piqued, and he can't leave be, and he goes off in search of this other-world, encountering glimpses and portals to it all over Prague. It's a world of strange rituals and flying ray-fish (the narrator hitches a ride at one point). The pages of a book he leafs through turn to wooden boards and then the paddles of a mill wheel. Yet the differences extend beyond physical transformations, down to completely different foundations of everything fundamental, as this world is built up entirely differently than ours. Among the school-lessons he overhears:
Case endings will eventually free themselves from their demeaning position and shine once more in their ancient glory. Bit by bit they will separate themselves from the roots of nouns and become what they were at the beginning -- the invocation of demons.
       As he first begins to realize what's out there the narrator wonders:
     Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city, and yet we know absolutely nothing about it ? 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.
       Indeed, he sees traces of the other-world everywhere -- and, once he really starts looking, plunges in repeatedly. Among the best descriptions are those of the souls who have been lost here -- the girl who got on the wrong tramway, the library, in whose depths several librarians disappear every year ("and the librarianship schools are unable to turn out enough graduates").
       Eventually, he realizes:
     Now I knew that the other city can only be entered by someone who leaves in the awareness that the journey he is undertaking has no purpose, because purpose means a place in the fabric of relations that create the home, and that it is not even purposeless, because purposelessness simply complements purpose and belongs to this world.
       Ajvaz is successful in conjuring up a quite wonderful beyond-purposeless-world -- but that's also one of the difficulties with the book, as it is almost all atmosphere but all to ... little purpose. This is a novel of discovery of and of getting to know this secondary world, but Ajvaz is so enamored of his invention that it doesn't go much beyond that.
       One character warned early on:
Don't concern yourself with weird books that remind you of the frontiers of our world. They can't lead you out of it, they can only eat away at its structure from within.
       But Ajvaz doesn't eat away at enough in his own book, too satisfied with the neat concept and a few wild ideas. Yes, this is wonderful fantasy -- scenes that unfold like in surreal films, or Daliesque artworks. And, yes, there is some narrative tension, as the narrator has repeated narrow escapes from this other-world -- but on the whole there is too little story here, and the other-world alone is not compelling enough to sustain a whole novel (although perhaps it might be for some readers).
       Intriguing, but not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2009

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The Other City: Reviews: Michal Ajvaz: Other books by Michal Ajvaz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Michal Ajvaz was born in 1949.

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