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Michal Ajvaz: Zlatý věk (The Golden Age)

There are some novels that manage to create an entirely different world from ours, even if the world they are writing about is physically in our world. I am not talking about science fiction and fantasy novels but, rather, literary novels that use this technique. Gulliver’s Travels is one example, another is Austin Tappan Wright‘s Islandia. This novel certainly falls into that category.

It is set on an island in the Atlantic on the Tropic of Cancer between Cape Verde and the Canary Islands (where there is, in fact, no land). The island does not currently have a name. Names of people and places seem to be ephemeral in this country. It used to have a name and may have one in the future but does not do so at the moment. The unnamed narrator had discovered a 19th century book about the island in a Munich bookshop, where it was called St George’s, but that name is no longer used. It has some technology, but only one phone, a phone box, generally only used by visitors. It does not have any money either nor does it have any theft or murder. It is not isolated. It was conquered by some unspecified Europeans some time ago. There was no resistance to the conquest and the Europeans built houses, which are now mainly empty, though anyone can use them. The Europeans were gradually absorbed into the island and its culture, rather than the other way round, in a subtle form of the method used in Solaris, with the minds of the conquerors effectively being taken over by the island rather than the islanders. However the island is regularly visited for trading their precious stones.

The people could be described as indolent but not really in the sense we might normally use the word. For example, meaningfulness was taken as something base, almost indecent. There is little culture in the sense we understand it – no monuments, no stories, no beauty – and only one book. The island was not adorned with any examples of natural beauty or historical monuments; it had no stories that boasted of glory or fame; there were no gaily-coloured festivals or folk costumes. In short, as the narrator tells us it was very boring.

What it did have was water and objects, like water, such as mirrors and precious stones, that reflect light. There are two towns, the lower, built essentially by the conquerors and where few people live, except for the King, and the upper town, where most people live. Their houses are built into the hillside. As we learn, the reason for this is that they mine the precious stones, that they use both for decoration but also for trade with outsiders, directly from the back of their houses. The front of the house tends to have water pouring down, acting as a sort of a curtain. As well as supplying water and beauty, it is also a clock, with built-in smells so that you tell the time not only by the water but by the smell. Above all, the locals are fascinated by water. They take simple delight in the coolness of the water and the sounds it makes, and sometimes they put drops of dye in it and watch the figures change and melt. They spend hours watching the water and the play of light; indeed, this seems to be their main form of entertainment. The narrator admits that this could seem boring but he, too, became absorbed in it.

Sex obviously plays a role, as they reproduce, but romantic love does not seem important. The narrator has a girlfriend, Karael, but the relationship seems to fizzle out. The bonds between man and woman were not particularly strong, and it was a common occurrence that one of the partners would disappear to the lower town for a good long while and then return.

In many respects, as the narrator points out, they were somewhat like the Lotus Eaters of Greek myth. The narrator calls it effervescent chaos and adds perhaps this was not even chaos, but something beyond chaos, a space of calm, swirling forces from which shapes, images and some sense of order rose up before sinking back without regret or memory.

As I said, there is one book. This is not, of course, like the books we know. Nor is is a religious text. It is called The Book. There is a basic book somewhere hidden in it that once had a beginning and an end but no longer. It is rather a huge work, with no obvious beginning and end. The stories in it can best be described as a post-modern work, using techniques such as mise en abyme and nesting, while telling Arabian Nights-style stories. The nesting can be very complex. It is not just Story A, which leads to Story B, which leads to Story C and so on. For example, you may get to, say, Story D, and find elements and characters of Story A there, before it shoots off elsewhere. In addition many of the pages have pockets, in which you may may find other texts (linked stories, Wikipedia-style explanations, or even more digressions on the theme). However, you are just as likely something else, such as some strange powder, which our narrator finds in one of the pockets. Though someone – no-one knows who – started The Book – anyone can continue, adding to the stories, putting something in a pocket or making other alterations. Indeed some changes may be made by accident, as The Book is passed around the island and things can spill on it (stains are very important in the island culture) or it can get damaged. But this is all part of The Book and, of course, part of post-modernism. We are given a (long) excerpt from The Book, which is post-modernism meets The Arabian Nights.

While the majority of the story is about the island and its culture in the broadest sense of the word, the narrator/Ajvaz is not averse to giving us his own digressions. We learn, for example, about Baumgarten (who may not, indeed almost certainly is not called Baumgarten) a fellow Czech. We learn various stories about him but, in particular, the story of the young woman who breaks into his room in Paris and steals a necklace. He chases her across the roof (influenced perhaps by To Catch a Thief?) and catches her, whereupon she tells him an incredible story of a painting, by an unknown artist who has recently drowned, that seems to contain as much information as an encyclopaedia and which may or may not exist. In short, this story is just as post-modern as the stories in The Book and, indeed, the story of the island.

I could carry on for pages on all the complexities of this story and the island: the language with at least seventeen cases (which frequently change), the mysterious script, the role of stains, the way letters and pictures merge, their chess-like game, where there is no clear boundary between the squares, their strange method of cooking (fire is not involved) and much more. Is the island Atlantis? This is hinted at but, like much else, not confirmed either way.

This is both a stunningly original novel and a massive post-modernist game. You can interpret it as Ajvaz just having a huge amount of fun. However, you can also clearly see it as an attempt to show that our way of looking at things (and our way meaning the modern, developed world) is not only not the only way, it is not necessarily the best way. I believed them to have the same right to their way of life as we had to ours, that theirs was neither better nor worse than the kind of life we led in Europe. However you read the book – and like The Book it can certainly be read in more than one way – this is a very original work and a fascinating read.

Publishing history

First published by Hynek in 2001
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010
Translated by Andrew Oakland