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Michal Ajvaz: Druhé Město (The Other City)

There has long been a view that there are worlds existing in parallel to ours. Scientists have suggested this but fiction writers, including film scriptwriters, have long introduced us to the concept. Most people are familiar with or, at least, know of the TV series The Twilight Zone, which showed a world that seemed to be parallel to ours, yet often came very close – sometimes too close – to ours. And for those who have not heard of The Twilight Zone, they have certainly heard of Harry Potter and of the overlapping world of the Muggles (us) and the magicians (them). Czech writing and film has been very keen on fantasy and very much flirted with what we call science fiction. This novel takes that concept – that there is a world parallel to ours and which we often get a glimpse of without being aware of what we have seen – and applies it to the city of Prague.

Our unnamed hero/narrator is browsing in an antiquarian bookshop in Prague, when he comes across a strange book bound in dark-purple velvet, with neither the title nor the author’s name on the cover. The book seems to be written in an alphabet with which he is not familiar, indeed which was not of this world , as he comments. He puts it back but then changes his mind and buys it. He takes the book to an expert at the University Library. This encounter will be the start of a series of encounters, each one leading to the next, which will take him into the (to him) unknown other city of Prague.

The librarian had seen the letters before but did not know where they came from. He had been sent, early in his career, to look at the collection of a man who had died intestate and left a large personal library. As well as some odd statues, which our narrator will come across later in the book, what really caught his attention was a ruby-studded book. When he opened the clasp a strange light appeared, the letters started jumping and then a tsunami appeared. It does not kill him but a black fish does talk to him (talking fish will also be a feature that our narrator comes across). After a series of strange events, he wakes up in hospital. On returning to the flat, he finds the book has disappeared. He is not able to track down the book or the script.

Our narrator, however, is determined. In short, we follow him on a series of adventures, trying to track down the book and the people who are associated with it, who have a life underground and/or at night, when the rest of Prague is asleep. Various other people seem to have encountered these people and this city. There is the waitress whose husband and now daughter seem to be associated with it but she cannot fathom how or why. There is the man whose daughter inadvertently stepped stepped onto the mysterious green tram, which follows the normal tram tracks, till it diverts to what seemed to be unused tracks in the suburbs and then disappears into a wood on the outskirts of Prague. She is never seen again except for a few occasions when we’ve caught sight of her face in the depth of a mirror in a darkened room, and sometimes we’ve caught the sound of her voice in the roaring of a stove. Others have seen this tram, including the narrator, but he cannot follow it.

He finds a huge underground church and follows its service. He attends a lecture but is assailed because he is not carrying a weasel. At another event he is assailed because he does not have a fish with him. He is attacked on top of a tower by a giant shark (it’s all on TV). He even manages to travel on skis through the interspace between the apartments whose existence is denied. I discovered that the apartments are mutually linked by secret trails and passes that run behind the furniture—an entire labyrinth of roads, tunnels and trade routes winding through the depths of the house, through the space that we have proved unable to subdue and annex to our world; so we have preferred to deny its existence.

He wonders about this world and asks himself Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it? The more I pondered on it, the more I was inclined to think that it was indeed. He is attacked by a helicopter and sees volcano craters in private houses. Eventually, he revisits the librarian who had set him off on the trail. He feels the clue may lie in the bowels of the library stacks but the librarian does not want to go there, as librarians seem to disappear when they venture too far into the stacks. Our intrepid hero does venture into the stacks and after more adventures meets the Guardian of the Temple who tells him the secret centre that we seek is in reality the edge of another centre, which is itself an edge; the final centre is supposedly so remote that we have no hope of ever reaching it and goes on to tell him

The curious secret is that there exists no final centre, that no face is hidden behind the masks, there is no original word in the game of whispers, no original of the translations. All there is is a constantly turning string of transformations, giving rise to further transformations. There is no city of autochthons. There is an endless chain of cities, a circle without beginning or end over which there breaks unrelentingly a shifting wave of laws.

Is there another city? Yes, of course there is. We may not be aware of it, though we have probably glimpsed bits of it here and there, without being aware what the things we saw signified. Our narrator, however, has no doubt about its existence and no qualms about accepting it and visiting it, despite the dangers he knows that a visit entails.

Ajvaz’s story is thoroughly imaginative, as it takes us well out of the realms of normality and reality and plunges us into a world which, while adjacent to ours and, indeed, in some respects part of ours, has its own laws, and not just political laws but the laws of science. All too often it is difficult to guess what is really going on but that is very much part of the charm of this book. Our narrator seems to have no trouble stumbling over the other city, wherever he goes. This novel shows that when it comes to imaginative fantasy, the Czechs are hard to beat.

Publishing history

First published by Mladá fronta in 1993
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2009
Translated by Gerald Turner