Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

The cover of The Other City. The background is white, and there is a sparse abstract black line drawing of what may be a door in a wall.
Sometimes a book comes along that knocks me out of complacency and reminds me exactly why I love to read. The Other City by Michal Ajvaz was one of those books. At once incredibly intelligent and captivatingly beautiful, it is a rewarding book for anyone who loves to read beneath the surface and find meaning just beyond the frontier.

After discovering a strange book in an alien language at an antiquarian book store, an unnamed narrator comes into contact with a strange other world, "a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads." (from the blurb) He finds The Other City, a city that is at once the same place as his home city of Prague and something entirely different. Surrealist and strange, the people he meets and events he witnesses initially baffle both the narrator and the reader. The struggle of the reader to understand the book mirrors the experience that the narrator has trying to understand the strange new city in which he finds himself. Is there meaning to be found here? The answer is, of course, yes, but it is never quite the meaning that we expect.

What struck me first about this book was the vivid imagery. Though surrealism isn't usually my favorite aesthetic, the descriptions in The Other City were so beautiful and real that I didn't mind the initial confusion that necessarily comes with a surrealist text. Even the strangest and most incomprehensible of things are described in luminous prose, glowing with life and color. These descriptions help to create the atmosphere that defines the strange city.

Though the descriptions are beautiful, The Other City isn't just a text of images. There is a plot to this book, and the reader is just as invested in discovering the inner workings of the other city as the narrator is. I wanted to reach that inner courtyard and hear the music of strange fountains. Not only is the subject interesting, but Michal Ajvaz is a critical theorist, and his incredible intelligence shows in his writing. This is a book driven not only by conventional plot, but also by ideas and philosophies, which are always being found, challenged, and changed. As someone who loves to think and engage with ideas while I'm reading, I greatly enjoyed this intellectual side of the book. Whether it's notions of otherness and frontiers, the true nature of monsters, the relationship of language to reality, or the act of reading, this book handles ideas with a mix of beautiful prose and intellectual dexterity. Ajvaz manages to contemplate ideas without being pedantic or boring the reader. Instead, ideas become vitally significant, a way of making sense of a world that seems to defy logic and understanding.

A book about frontiers, monsters, and the act of reading, The Other City is stunning in both the depth of its ideas and the beauty and quality of its writing. For readers who need to understand every word of a book, The Other City is definitely not going to be enjoyable. But for those of you who like difficult novels, this might be the book for you. If you want a novel that will make you think as often as it takes your breath away, I absolutely recommend The Other City.

Rating: 5+ stars.
Recommendations: Don't give up if it confuses you at first. Keep on going. It's worth it.


  1. It sounds really interesting! Do you think it is something I would like?

  2. Hi mom! It is really interesting, and very strange. I don't know if you would like it, just because it's so difficult and weird (it's like reading a Dali painting, if that makes sense) but I can definitely bring it with me when I come home so you can check it out. I'd love to see what you think of it.

  3. This looks great. I always find myself reading books that no one has heard of and they often turn out to be great. Glad to see you finding off the Best-Seller lists!

  4. Wow, at first I thought this was a review of a similar book, also about an Eastern European city, with a mysterious double city. But that's The City and the City by China Mieville. This sounds interesting, too, though.