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Michal Ajvaz:Cesta na jih (Journey to the South)

Any novel that more or less starts with a ballet version of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and where one of the dancers, playing the role of Das Ding an sich (Thing-in-itself), murders an audience member and where this is perhaps one of the least strange parts of the book, is definitely my kind of book.

The book actually starts in Loutro, a small resort in South-west Crete where we meet the unnamed narrator. He sees a fellow Czech reading Sinbad the Sailor and this, like many other events in the book is relevant, even though its relevance is not immediately apparent. He also notices that the man has has several other books including a James Bond novel, a Sherlock Holmes novel, a book by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance philosopher and the aforementioned Critique of Pure Reason in the original German. All will turn out to be relevant to the story.

Our narrator tends to avoid fellow Czechs when abroad but he is curious about the man and his books and they start talking. The man – Martin – proceeds to tell our narrator his story and a hell of a story it is. Martin starts by saying that he had intended only a one day journey from Prague to Bratislava but, for various reasons, as we shall see, he had travelled all over Europe moving further South each time, till he ended up in Loutro. His story is very long and he will recount it over several days and it includes not just his story but several stories within stories within stories.

He is currently writing a thesis on the Critique of Pure Reason and had noticed an ad for a ballet of it so was naturally curious and bought a ticket. He had a vague idea of what was going on but imagined most of the audience would not. Suddenly the dancer dancing the Thing-In-Itself pulls out a gun and fires it. Was this part of the ballet? Apparently not, as an audience member was now dead. Everyone hurries to find the assailant but they have disappeared. The victim was Petr Quas, who was on the board of the Phoenix Finance Group. The author of the ballet was Tomas Kantor who had been murdered in Turkey in July or August 2006. We will soon discover that Kantor and Quas were stepbrothers. Other mysterious murders had also taken place in recent weeks.

During the investigation Martin will meet Kristyna who is a student at the university where he is studying . She had been the lover of Kantor but he had suddenly left her for another woman (we will find out why later in the book). Tomas worked as a dispatcher for the city trams. Kristyna had never met Quas as the two stepbrothers were not close. Tomas had written a long novel called Damp Walls(just a bit longer than this book). Tomas’ father had wanted to be a writer but focussed more on being a successful writer than the actual writing. He sees the same thing in his son. Tomas goes through various genres – he tries painting, poetry and music, all to no avail and ends up as a tram dispatcher, before writing his book.

Petr, however, influenced by his stepbrother becomes a poet, moves to writing lyrics for pop singers and ends up as a successful entrepreneur. Tomas, meanwhile, is dispatching, reading and wandering round the city. He wants to write a book that was nothing but endless descriptive details of city streets or country roads that ran between fields and he starts to write a book set in the imaginary city of Parca. And this is where the fun really starts.

A good part of the book is about the Lygdian revival. The Lygds were an old culture in that country that had had revivals throughout history and now has another one in the present. We follow Marius, a university professor but who resembles Tomas to some degree. (The book is full full of people in one story who resemble those in another story, events in one story that resemble events in another and so on). He has a strange love affair with Rita as Tomas does with Kristyna. Tomas had been writing this while he was off work for health reasons He realised how little he was interested in the thoughts of those who didn’t drink from the same well of emptiness as he. This theme, that ideas come from a void, also recurs throughout the book.

Tomas continues the book later and its gets stranger and stranger, not least because we meet Rita’s grandparents, Hector and Hella and Hector has invented a story to tell Hella when she was unwell and we get that long and complicated story as well. This one is set in North Floriana, a country in a certain amount of turmoil and includes the story of a novel called The Captive and we get the plot of that novel which is, of course very complicated and involves daemons, robots and robot hunters and a woman who reads her novel to one of the other characters as well as a ballet based on Critique of Pure Reason.

All this might sound tedious in the explanation but the works of fiction we learn about as well as their genesis are amazingly creative and original and well worth reading, even if you do get a bit lost at times. We of course move back through the novels where the wild imagination continues. Finally we are back at Tomas and Kristyna where we learn Tomas’ novel was not published because of a question Kristyna put to him. Because of that question, Tomas left her for another woman, and later died in Turkey. Tomas has plans to completely rewrite the book. No other book was about emptiness and nothingness only, even those in which the words emptiness and nothingness appeared on every page. All those other books had something to say. So Tomas wants to produce other works out of his book in a variety of genres. The Kant ballet is one example but not the only one as we see later.

We now move to what happened to Tomas. Martin, who has now fallen for Kristyna, and Kristyna find various clues that lead them on a wild gioose chase through Europe, travelling further South each time and getting involved with the Kabbalah and, as Martin points out, an ant mystic, statues of statues, a shootout in snowy Moscow, a student committing suicide at the Grand Canyon, a Florentine Neo-Platonist, a wryneck, a Chaldean incantation, the Kabbalah, the CIA, a comic-book bad guy, universal harmony, and now this gummy candy. He gives us another list later on: some guy called Tomas Kantor, rebuses and other puzzles, Italian gelatin candy, a suspicious Swiss company director, Renaissance magic, or the yacht of a Cretan rich man I didn’t know from Adam. And, as Martin asks himself, is the point of the journey really just to get closer to the Mediterranean? Is it to get closer to Kristyna?

As mentioned Martin and Krystina move from country to country, often on a whim, meaning that they find, often completely by chance, some seemingly trivial clue to what might have happened to Tomas and immediately head off to their next destination. Each time they are about to give up, one of them, usually though not always Kristyna, urges the other to head to the next destination where they might find the clue. You will not be surprised to know that they end up in Gavdos, the southernmost part of Europe.

I can only say that this is a most amazing and wonderfully original book. It contain four novels – Tomas’ Bare Walls, Hector’s story about Marius and Rita, The Captive as well as Martin’s account of his and Kristyna’s travels through Europe. The first three we see only in (extensive) summary, though with some excerpts and are told in different ways. The main story is narrated by Martin, while with Tomas’ story we get a summary of the book, which almost no-one else has read. Hector tells his story to his sick wife and she tells it to Marius while The Captive is actually written in wire. No, that it not a typo. It is written in wire. Each book on its own is brilliantly original but combined they make for a masterpiece.

The 1001 Nights and the Odyssey are clearly just two of the numerous influences on this book but a book featuring a Kabbalistic comic, a ballet of a serious philosophical work, a mysterious painting which luminous worms may have helped create, a variety of cryptic codes, science fiction, including robots, daemons and the end of the world (yes, it’s coming), a strange film, about a man who, among other things, discovered sweat glands, entoptic images, a tour of several European towns and cities, creative gummy sweets and a whole load more, clearly has spread its net far and wide.

I can only heartily recommend this book and thank Dalkey Archive Press and translator Andrew Oakland for bringing it to us in English.

Publishing history

First published by Druhé město in 2008
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2023
Translated by Andrew Oakland