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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Empty Streets

Michal Ajvaz

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To purchase Empty Streets

Title: Empty Streets
Author: Michal Ajvaz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 470 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Empty Streets - US
Empty Streets - UK
Empty Streets - Canada
  • Czech title: Prázdné ulice
  • Translated by Andrew Oakland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : (overly ?) playful and tangled

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Empty Streets begins with a writer looking for his story. He broke up with his girlfriend (a while back already) and has now quit his job, and decided to concentrate on his writing. But, for all that concentration -- and all the handwritten-pages he's managing to fill -- things are not going well:

This mass of restless, elusive, metamorphosing, barely legible pages was turning into a monstrosity.
       It's a hot Prague summer -- it's July, 1999 -- and, after yet another day of getting pretty much nowhere, he hits the (surprisingly empty) streets and heads to the local pub. He quickly gets sidetracked, and winds up crossing a nearby dump -- the remains of some bulldozed houses in the neighborhood. As he crosses, his foot is nearly impaled by an odd-shaped wooden object, about a meter in height -- an elaborate sort of trident, or perhaps something resembling a human:
I couldn't stop contemplating the real purpose of the thing. Could it be a weapon, some kind of catapult ? Or might it be the body of a musical instrument: in terms of its shape it was somewhat reminiscent of the lyre.
       The writing doesn't go much better in the days following his discovery, but he soon comes across the design again, seeing it on the computer of a graphic designer, who explains where he encountered it. This leads the writer to the home -- the "spooky Modernist villa" -- of a Jakub Jonáš, a professor of literature whose articles (inveighing against all sorts of decadence) the writer recalled reading twenty years earlier. Jonáš, having heard of his interest in the object, reaches out to him with his own problem: a missing daughter, twenty-four-year-old Viola, who disappeared two years earlier. Jonáš insists:
What happened to you at the dump doesn't belong in the circle containing Viola's disappearance, yet somehow is connected with it ... Do you see what I mean ? It's important that the closed circle has finally been broken -- that at last some connection has emerged with something beyond it. A way out has opened up, even if we don't yet know where it will lead ...
       Not quite convinced, the writer nevertheless is willing to try to follow the trail of the symbol and Viola, and see where it leads. (As it turns out, Viola had the symbol tattooed on her belly, just one more suggestion of the close connection between the two.)
       It's not exactly a wild goose chase, but the writer stumbles from one unusual encounter to the next, finding traces of Viola, and of the odd symbol. So, for example, a painter he meets recounts having come across the symbol in a story written by a 'Jiří Zajíc' (which he gives the writer to read). Other traces of Viola and the symbol surface in an unusual water-pump she commissioned, as well as a music (of sorts ...) CD of compositions by one Vuhulum Chuh-yuh, with the symbol not as part of the (back-)cover art work but the actual title of one of the pieces (the other being called, somewhat more traditionally: 'The Manifestation and Extinction of the Orange Book: a sonata played behind walls at 3:00 a.m.'). The artist using the pseudonym Vuhulum Chuh-yuh was a member of an artist-group called 'White Triangle' whose work apparently tended to the experimental -- and then fragmentary.
       The writer's quest leads him to a variety of people, each with their own story to tell that offers a snippet of background or information. Often their stories are not their own, but others', related second-hand, and eventually there's both an entire (albeit apparently also unfinished) opera the writer sees (and describes, in detail) and a whole novel that's summarized (also at considerable length) for him.
       For all the instances he finds of the symbol, and the sightings of Viola, deeper meanings and explanations (as well as what has happened to Viola) long remain elusive. The writer sees himself as an in-over-his-head "cross between Philip Marlowe and Heinrich von Ofterdingen" on his quest -- but it is an intriguing ride.
       Empty Streets is marked by absences -- most notably, of course, Viola's. But, for example, Viola's own mother died when she was only a small child -- an absence that marked her. The writer's encounters also tend to be one-on-one, often with people in entirely solitary jobs or otherwise by themselves, hardly ever bothered by customers or others. The conversations, too, tend to take place in isolation -- on empty streets, in houses, offices, or stores where there's practically no chance of interruption by others.
       A rare occasion when the writer finds himself in a crowd is at a party -- but everyone, including him, is in disguise, unrecognizable. So, too, many of the characters employ pseudonyms -- occasionally revealed (though hardly quickly: story-writer Jiří Zajíc reveals himself well over two hundred and fifty pages after the narrator read his story), but more often keeping their identity behind their masks. (And of course there's our nameless narrator .....)
       Time and causality seem confused too, the writer noting:
In my search for Viola I keep coming across things like this. This case seems to do strange things with time; it's as if the recent past had the ability to influence the distant past.
       Among the fantastical elements that the writer comes across is a paint with special qualities -- allowing, for example, to intermittently have the light come on in a room depicted in a painting. Paint and ink with special qualities plays a significant role in the story too -- practical application of some of the aesthetic concepts that are played with throughout the novel.
       Empty Streets is a two-part novel, the first entirely quest, as the often baffled author wanders around and picks up clues (and hears a variety of stories and accounts), and the shorter second part then, fairly simply, a (quite nice) resolution that ties up the pieces and provides explanation(s).
       It is good entertainment -- the stories-within-stories and various episodes often intriguing and even exciting, the bigger mystery a slightly messy but sufficiently compelling one, and the theoretical-conceptual ideas nicely integrated into the story (or stories) as a whole. But Ajvaz heaps on a lot -- the novel is nearly five hundred pages long -- and there are points when it flags: this is a novel of too much (re)telling -- and, ultimately, explanation. The author isn't really passive -- he goes from place to place, and there's a slightly adventurous feel to some of this (though pretty much the hairiest episode, in which he is drugged, finds him waking up comfortably in bed with two women) -- but at each station practically the same thing happens: he is presented with an episode or account or a summary, rather than living through it. It all begins to feel a bit second-hand -- meaning it lacks a bit of immediacy.
       Empty Streets is strong enough -- there's enough here (there's a lot here ...) --- that this doesn't matter too much. But it does matter, and it keeps a very good novel from potentially being a great one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 March 2016

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Empty Streets: 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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