Monday, January 14, 2013

The otherness of The Other City

Michal Ajvaz is... something else. I was blown away by The Golden Age last year; I expected something strange and unexpected from The Other City as well. That is exactly what I got. Unfortunately, where The Golden Age was a magical and wonderful reading experience, The Other City was often disjointed, confusing and somewhat lost.

The Other City begins strongly - the idea and the tone struck me as similar to The Golden Age and the strangeness of Ajvaz's Prague was quite intriguing at first. The first half of the book flew by as I, like the unnamed narrator, got sucked into the Other Prague. Except then the themes began to repeat themselves clumsily. And then the stories became completely unhinged and impossible to follow. And then they again became magical, just for a few seconds. And so despite limping awkwardly to the final chapters, The Other City ended as it began - with intrigue and magic and strength.

Ajvaz's writing is strange. I constantly see readers saying it's like Italo Calvino, or Borges, but truthfully I haven't read Borges yet (on my shelf, I swear) and I only read Calvino after Ajvaz, so I have some trouble making the comparison. What I can say is that Ajvaz's writing - particularly in this translation to English - is a little old-fashioned, a little fancy-stiff at times, but generally smoothly appealing. It's not the most accessible or easy-to-read, but there's something special about it, something backwards and twisted that I find particularly appealing.

And what of plot? The Other City is about mood and ideas, not so much actual coherent story. There are a few recurring characters and concepts and sub-plots, but... it's not a plot book. It's not really a character book either, which makes it pretty hard to classify. Which essentially makes it easier to classify as well - The Other City is a bit of a mess. This is a book that had such good ideas and got lost with them. That might have been the point but if it was, it played out poorly.

So I liked The Other City at times, but I also didn't really like it. I got bored by it, I was enchanted by it, I was confused by it. It is nowhere near as powerful a novel as The Golden Age, nor is it as successful at actually playing on its own themes and clever storytelling ideas. But it's interesting. And someone looking for something utterly bizarre and different could certainly do worse than to pick this one off the shelf.

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