The OF Blog: Michal Ajvaz, The Golden Age

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Michal Ajvaz, The Golden Age

Czech writer Michal Ajvaz's second novel to be translated into English, The Golden Age, is as deceptive on the surface as was his earlier novel, The Other City.  At first glance, the story appears to be a sort of a Gulliver's Travels-esque travelogue, with the narrator sojourning on an Atlantic isle where its inhabitants have several strange habits that have drawn that narrator/historian to study them.  But just as Swift's tale contains several more layers than just a mere travelogue, so too does The Golden Age have much depth to its narrative.

When I began reading it a couple of days ago, I remarked on Facebook that there were several interesting parallels that I saw between it and Zoran Živković's Escher's Loops (which I reviewed earlier today).  This is not to say that the two works are mirrors, but rather that I found some complementary points about storytelling being made within their texts.  If anything, this realization augmented my enjoyment of Ajvaz's novel, making for a very quick read of an absorbing story.

The basic plot is that the narrator, writing from a first-person point of view, is studying the inhabitants of a remote Atlantic island and, after prior three year sojourn with them, he is about to return.  But this narrator does not tell us everything about the native population and their unique culture at first.  Instead, he uses anecdotal asides to convey information out of order, leaving the reader to piece together certain elements that later become central to the second half of the novel. 

The first half of the book is devoted to creating a sort of ethnography of the island and its people.  The narrator/historian's attempts to outline the history of this people runs into several difficulties.  One important clue as to why there is such a difficulty in examining their past is embedded within this passage quoted below:

When the islanders repeated the theories of the Europeans, they did not change in them a single word or concept; no article of proof was missing, nor were any laws of logic violated.  Yet it seemed to the foreigners that in the act of repetition the logic they had used to this point was revealed to be a dreamlike game, its logical structures to be labyrinthine.  Although the methodical approach was disturbed in none of its aspects, it was transformed into a ritual that hinted at sorcery.  It remained the case that if man is mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates, too, is mortal, but suddenly it seemed that the mechanism that transmits to the conclusion by means of a central article the predicate of the upper premiss, was started up by an unknown force, a force that the Europeans had never before been aware of; now it seemed that behind the figures of their judgments they were seeing the outlines of mechanisms wholly different, driven by this force with the same willingness and perseverance; they also thought they glimpsed the contours of fantastic syllogisms in whose judgments the place of Socrates was taken by scaly, malodorous monsters and in whose conclusions were revealed flashes of venomous light and muted cries which, by some strange irresistible method, flowed out of the colours of sounds and the rhythm of premisses.  It would have been bad enough if this transformation was just a sickness that afflicted logic in the tropics; but the Europeans felt an ever-growing anxiety that something worse was going on, that in this accursed place they had got themselves into a trap from which there was no escape, that logic had taken off its mask and with a grimace of irony exposed the true nature it had hitherto kept hidden. (p. 33)
If I were to choose a single adjective to describe The Golden Age, it would be "labyrinthine."  Starting with the narrator's failed attempts to outline the people's history (they disdain the past, or rather view it as something too sacred to be profaned by probing historians), the story then spirals inward until the island people's most precious trove, a singular Book in which stories are written, crossed out, added to, and rewritten, becomes the central focus of the novel's second half.

Once the Book is introduced, the labyrinths of identity, past, present, and future become more and more complex.  Ajvaz imbues these tales taken from the Book with vitality.  The stories "breathe," and there are deep connections between them that are left unstated.  By the time the novel closes, the lines between reality and fiction have blurred for the narrator, creating this sense of "otherness" that lingers well after the last page is turned.  The narrator near the conclusion speaks of a "void" which may bother the reader; there certainly is something troubling about the vortex created by these swirling tales and how they seem to suck at the reader's subconscious.  Ajvaz has created a story in which setting has become unmoored from plot or characterization; each seems to be fragile representations of something else.  The overall effect for me was akin to becoming lost in a textual maze, but not feeling afraid or terrified at finding myself lost within the stories being told.  If anything, I found this to be "magical" in the sense of feeling that so much is waiting to be uncovered, much of it depending upon looking slantwise rather than directly at the text itself.  Few stories accomplish this and although The Golden Age certainly is not for readers who want a lineal plot and text, this certainly was a treat to read.  Highly recommended.

13 comments:

Paul said...

I have The Other City, but I haven't got around to reading it yet, and I will definitely be picking this one up as well.

Larry said...

You should read both ASAP, as each makes for wonderful reading :D

Paul said...

Okay, I'll order it, and read The Other City as soon as I get home, as I'm staying with a friend at the moment and don't have it with me. :)

Larry said...

That'll work. And if you haven't yet read Escher's Loop, that could be mixed in between those to create a sort of collage of images and narratives. Instead of a soundwall, it could be a versewall, I suppose.

Paul said...

Sounds good, I've been reading a lot of dark stuff lately (The Etched City, Fugue State, and Teatro Grottesco to name a few) so I could really use something a little lighter.

Plus, I told Zoran I'd review Escher's Loop, so I should do that. ;)

James said...

I read The Other City last year and it was one of my favorite books. I have made a point to recommend the book to just about everyone and I try to discuss Ajvaz on the blog occasionally (even going so far as to dig up some of his short work around the internet and point it out). I am so disappointed that so few people have read the book. It's a wonderful experience.

I have The Golden Age sitting on my shelf and really need to get around to reading it. Soon enough.

Oh, Paul, if you are going to buy The Golden Age, might I recommend the Dalkey Archive Press Summer Sale? Obviously not the greatest if you only want the one book, but they have a nice selection of other works.

Paul said...

Thakns James, I'll take a look and see if I can find 5, but there is definately 2 Danilo Kis books I can see at a quick glance I'd like. The problem with these sales is the international shipping usually kills the discount, but I will check it out.

Larry said...

Dalkey Archive produces some kickass books. I'd also suggest Best Contemporary Mexican Fiction as well.

James said...

I was looking for a fifth (and there are a lot of books to choose from without much of a place to start) and that looks promising. Going to add that and call it a day (and then eventually check my funds to see if I can afford to actually buy them).

James said...

Also, that the book is bilingual is pretty neat. Time to dust off the high school Spanish and embarrass myself at how much I've forgotten.

Larry said...

Always good to have a parallel text when trying to (re)learn a language. The translations are pretty good, I might add.

E. L. Fay said...

The Other City (which I loved) was very much a "labyrinth story" too, with the idea that there are cities within cities that may lead to some primordial source or may just go in circles. The way the stories work in this book sounds similar. Do they go anywhere or do they just build off one another?

Thanks for reviewing this. I've been wanting to read another Ajvaz book. I've heard China Mieville's The City and The City is a lot like The Other City too.

Larry said...

They do end up going somewhere, but it's not a clear-cut answer other than to hint at other matters that underlie things.

Miéville's story has some surface similarities to Ajvaz's tale, but very different in focus and how the story unfolds.

 
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