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Other City (Czech Literature Series) Paperback – June 11, 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In Ajvaz's first novel to be translated into English, a Borgesian cohort of freakish creatures, talking birds and eccentric city dwellers lurk on the margins of an alternative Prague. An unnamed protagonist learns that a book written in an unearthly language is an opening to a dangerous world that is just around the corner from normal life. More and more frequently, the protagonist stumbles across scenes from the other city—he spies on an inscrutable religious service, is treated to a lecture on the subject of Latest Discoveries about the Great Battle in the Bedrooms. The city's inhabitants do not take kindly to his intrusions; he is pursued by weasels, shot at by a helicopter and nearly eaten by a half-man, half-shark. Meanwhile, overheard conversations dissolve into nonsense, elk are stabled inside statues and birds recite passages from an epic poem. Ajvaz's novel is a gorgeous matryoshka doll of unreason, enigma and nonsense—truly weird and compelling. (June)
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"The novel is reminiscent of Surrealism in the way it departs from common experience and 'common sense,' attacks logical rules and customs, and takes things out of their familiar contexts. It is, however, a work more of invention and intellectual game than of spontaneous imagination. The ornamental imagery becomes fixed in obsessive formulae and configurations, and this is somewhat disproportionate to how it eludes definite, accepted meanings, and moves to other possibilities and worlds, which are protean and ever emerging, and to how it calls upon us to accept another cosmos. The setting is a textual maze from which there is no escape and whose ultimate meaning remains forever inaccessible, since the ultimate contexts are never emphasized." --Ceska Literatura

"The texts of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz (pronounced EYE-voss) are evidence not only of a clever imagination, but also of a mind that savors the difficulty of reading--a mind for which language is not merely a vehicle for the delivery of information, but an integral part of the very world it is trying to communicate. Reading such a world means stepping inside it, letting it infect you, bruise, scrape, poison and obsess you." --Jonathan Bolton, CONTEXT

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Product Details

  • Series: Czech Literature Series
  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; First English Translation edition (June 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1564784916
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564784919
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,095,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By The Ginger Man VINE VOICE on February 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I love this book. It brings us to another Prague that "glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings." The author depicts a bizarre, detailed, dream-like city that can be entered through simple doors, alleys or library corridors. Ajvaz' imagery and language are unlike anything I have come across recently and represents a strange hybrid of Kafka's sensibility and Dali's worldview. The author shows a fine sense of pacing. Just as he tempts the reader into strange and uncomfortable settings, made real by telling details, internally consistent unreality and exquisitely chosen words, the author transports us back to the real city before we can tire of his vision.

In the end, The Other City is a celebration of the courage needed to encounter the unknown. "The dread you feel on the preiphery of your world is the beginning of the bliss of return." There may be danger, but even defeat in the quest can merge with the joy of the journey and become part of it. What matters is the ability to enter a landscape from which society tries to protect us while, at the same time, denying us the right to become our true selves in the experience.

The narrator accepts this challenge: "I abandoned myself to the power of the journey and didn't know whether in the future the journey would command me to remain outside the walls, or to return with my knapsack full of tongues cut from the maws of dragons."

This is a compact gem of a book. The wonderful and surreal events endured by the narrator become, in the end, the as yet unknown and unformed challenges we face when we have the courage to embrace change. In image and message, The Other City marries the surreal to the mundane. This artful juxtaposition enriches and informs the readers' experience. Finally, "we are troubled by the dark music heard from over the border, which undermines our order." The question posed is whether we follow where the music leads us.
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The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is by far the oddest book I have read this year and it has been quite a year for odd books. But where Smith's Only Forward and Harkaway's The Gone-Away World was odd because of the absurdity and, in the case of the latter, randomness found within, The Other City is odd because it presents a world of wonderment that exists all around us and that we willingly blind ourselves to. It is a world that is so alien to ours that a jungle can exist in a closet, that armies gradually turn into coats, and passenger ships voyage through the space between bookshelves. It is random and it is absurd, but unlike the aforementioned, it is not used for humor, nor is it strange for the sake of strangeness. Rather, the absurdity and the randomness is used to craft a fringe world so curious and surreal that it sucks the reader into its labyrinthine spaces, just as it does the narrator.

The most fascinating thing about this book, in terms of writing and not story, are the paragraphs. In our internet culture it is not uncommon to stumble across some post on a forum or a blog or wherever you may be that does not have a character or word limit that consists of one massive paragraph, Most refer to it as a wall of text and they are right to do so. No one likes them, no one wants to read them, and it is frustrating for all. I feel the same about books, mostly because the longer I read without some break the more likely I am to become distracted by thought or something shiny lurking across the room and have my concentration shatter to a thousand pieces. This was one of the main reasons I stopped reading Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon.

The Other City erupts spontaneously into pages-long passages consisting of one paragraph, usually of dialogue.
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Louis Aragon's 1926 novel/treatise/memoir "Paris Peasant" tried to re-imagine the function of mythology, which had once ordered and articulated a contingent, amoral universe. Aragon, a prominent member of the French Surrealist movement, sought to argue in favor of looking beyond the surfaces and reinventing the mundane into something wonderfully subjective. The modern world is still full of possibilities: you just have to be willing to look for them.

I had no idea that I also owned the uncredited sequel to "Paris Peasant." Now it is one thing to just think up new, radical ideas in literature. It is quite another thing to actually realize them. I don't think anyone truly succeeded in mythologizing the modern and wedding metaphysics to art and literature until Czech author Michal Ajvaz came along and wrote "The Other City" in 1993. "The Other City" is not simply a study of different modes of seeing and interpreting. It is not a treatise. It is a book that takes the Surrealist transformation of everyday objects and crosses the border into speculative fiction. It is simultaneously an argument in favor looking beyond and beneath words and surfaces, and the story of a man who discovers another world embedded in our own. Think of a cross between "Paris Peasant" and Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" and you'll have at least a partial idea of what Ajvaz has accomplished.

One snowy afternoon in a used bookstore, Ajvaz's unnamed narrator comes across a purple-bound volume written in an unknown language, accompanied by several strange illustrations. He takes it to a scholar, who is immediately unnerved and recommends that he put the book back and forget the whole thing. Instead, the narrator's curiosity is intensified, and he quickly finds himself wandering deep down the rabbit hole.
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