Michal Ajvaz: The World as a Labyrinth
14. February 2010 19:14
A review of Michal Ajvaz works
It is not possible to unequivocally classify the author who understands the world as a labyrinth, were one’s indeterminateness is nevertheless accepted as a normal place of residence, the author, whose original life-generating chaos is closer than outer order, which becomes the shell of animate reality, the author, in whose imagination a high speed train regularly runs through his bedroom. In a telephone booth on Prague’s Havel Square a sea horse holds the phone receiver and from any district of the city or any block of apartments it is possible to instantly enter into another world, one bizarre and fantastic and despite it all characterized by details, which do not transcend our daily realities.
After a superficial meeting someone could say that he is a surrealist, with a figurativeness close to the graphic worlds and faces of the erstwhile Jinřich Štýrský and Toyen. But in Ajvaz one does not find the calmly poetic or the dreamy tone in the images of both these artists. Is he perhaps, in the literary sense, a relative of Vítězval Nezval? It is indeed difficult to find in Ajvaz that Nezval-like vibrancy that is reciprocally undermining images, and then again, in a perpetual intoxication of words, piling them up, which attests to the fervent internal magma, from which bursts a brilliant geyser of metaphor. And so perhaps one could attempt to find an analogy between the bizarre world of Salvador Dali and Michal Ajvaz? But to our literati he is far from the restive gesture of Dali, that arrogant grin on account of the surrounding average world.
Ajvaz could be understood by his belletristic and forthright scientific activity in the territory of philosophy and esthetics as one following in the footsteps of Ladislav Klíma, even including that vital attitude of a deep and original thinker, which exists in a person irrespective of whether one works as an engine driver in a locomotive, a night guard, day laborer, or a lonesome gas pumper. It would indeed be comparably superficial to assert that Klima, in contrast to Ajvaz, tended as an egocentrist towards extreme individualism.
It isn’t possible to find in Ajvaz any tendency toward hollow fairy-tales, so typical in the last era of utilitarian primitive literature, in which vampires or aliens fight, and in which superman miraculously flies between the towers of New York skyscrapers. From Ajvaz‘s bizarre environments and situations awe and despair, bloodiness and violence, all wrapped up in a cheap happy ending, essentially never ensue.
Rather than attempt a detailed understanding of the relationship of the authentic and commonly understood reality to myth in Ajvaz’s work, we can establish that the literary community does not deny his indubitable originality, or the sheer size of his artistic manifestation. Vladimír Novotný in The Dictionary of Czech Writers from the Year 1945 (Prague 1995) states: “The fundamental characteristics of Ajvaz’s poetic manuscript forms an endeavor at an integrated creative philosophical and artistic gesture.” Luboš Merhaut in a review of Ajvaz’s novel “The Other City” (Literární noviny [Literary News] 1993, number 37) rejects the possible critique that the work could encompass “artistically masked banality,” and on the contrary draws the following ardent conclusion from Ajvaz’s unusual artistic manifestation, in which the bizarre and cynical rush of images are naturally: “Rising from remarkable individual gesture, which by its fullness, stylized effects, or animated and ironic otherworldliness, continues, all things considered, on the border of the ‘imaginative’ areas or as experimental prose, at which point it could be eliminated.” It is possible to agree with Merhaut’s appraisal, excepting that “ironic otherworldliness.”
If we know today of Ajvaz’s other literary expressions, from these also undeniably arise rather archetypal animate wonderment at the sheer humility of man, of searching for the basic and forgotten. It is possible for us to look around from his fictional texts and find far more distinctly that they merge in the abyss, where the prevailing shapes and verbal nomenclature are born only from chaos. Using one quotation from the book Quiet Labyrinths (Prague 1996), in which Ajvaz links running text to the photographs of forests by Petr Hruška (page 28): “Usually we search in a maze, which offers our eye the basic shape of things like a hieroglyph, which we can perhaps read over and assign some meaning, which we have polished and prepared for use. And so the puzzle, which we see laid out, is possible to decipher, without which we would need to establish an uncertain plan of unfinished shape and execute it in an area of ripening words.”
Ajvaz’s meaning truly depends on a definite “pre-articulated pole,” and it is only there in which is born the meaning of words and the subsequent character of definite reality. In this relationship everything can be in a state of birth, from the “pre-articulated” background of the author’s consciousness any situation can arise, analogous to the attachment of the bible to the creation of the world. Michal Ajvaz, in his philosophical study Character and Essence, subtitled Meditations on Derrida’s Grammatology (Prague 1994), presents among other things: “The play is a return to reality at the state of birth, connecting the genetic energies of being, and as such is also a means of entrance into the fundamental force field of space.” Literary creation – as a definite companion of the “play” - in its approach to the force field, supports the inception of combination and imagination and the inception of a new “reality,” not only by its mechanical nature of continually being, but in the process; any literary text isn’t only a copy and derivative of the authentic world, but a new reality, it is the thing in itself.
Only rarely do we find in Ajvaz a concept or phenomenon which would be considered now as would back in the Middle Ages a bird on three legs or a lion with a horn in the middle of its forehead. None of his fractured human situations distinguish themselves from that which we continually digest and see. Only combinations of authentic reality are dramatically new and unusual, and in their sum total they create a sort of mythical world.
It is possible to expressively discern the manner of his creation in the relatively short text with the title, “Cable” from the book The Return of the Old Lizard (Prague 1991). All of his stories or poetry – at least as concerns the poetry in the collection Murder in the Hotel Continental (Prague 1989) – start with a precise characterization or a basic situation, which by no means exceed our everyday experience.
Is it possible to climb along a cable on a tall, perpendicular surface? Certainly, it is the typical activity of alpine climbers. Why wouldn’t we then believe the author, when he asserts about himself in the first sentence of that mini-story, which is filled with the quality of journalistic accuracy: “A warm wind blows and darkens: it is late in the afternoon of a November day in the year 1988.”
And at the beginning of the next paragraph, he establishes that the journey meets with many marvelous things. In bedrock there are certainly no windows through which one can see into apartments with glaring blue television screens, nor can one meet with a telephone booth there, where the receiver swings by its cord off its hook and from which dies away crazy curses at a husband. But those details themselves are not unrealistic, they are even on the contrary offered here as austere reality. The height of absurdity is subsequently soon achieved when he records a meeting on the rope as though it would be just as possible as passing on Prague’s National Street. Sometimes he climbs against traffic: “It is the woman in the fur coat we cumbersomely climb over. Her high heels rest on the crown of my head, I am afraid that they will break my cranium and dig into my brain.” And it precisely the woman without problems that appears further on, while the fog below him then hisses about his ineptitude. When the narrator appears at the top, he locates the rock wall, upon which there is a banister to which the cable is fastened, and he looks down onto the intersection at the National Theater and goes to sit in the warm Café Slavia. The text ends with an appeal that man perceive even “the buried abyss” of the city, because only then is it possible to understand the sense of platitudes and the secret direction of the personal journey.
To the typical attributes in Ajvaz’s work belong the theme of water, the theme of animals surfacing in miscellaneous situations and spaces, which belong to a daily, mechanized cycle, the theme of writing in unusual places and situations, the theme of majestic sculptural works emerging in forgotten or completely inappropriate localities, the theme of serious philosophical discussions in the immediate vicinity of stupid banalities, more recently even the theme of an omnipotent and indefinable music (the story “White Ants” in the book The Turquoise Eagle, Prague 1997), and the theme of a produced, thriving, and radiant material, whose last phase can be understood as a black marsh (the story “Zeno’s Paradox” from the book of the same title). In The Turquoise Eagle Ajvaz attempts a multilayered composition, when in the middle of the whole story there plays another, and in that one yet another narrated story, like a big picture on the wall of a gallery, which portrays another picture on a wall, and in which is a smaller measure of the same picture, and on and on ad absurdum. Indeed Ajvaz’s virtuosic theory of combination in The Turquoise Eagle initiates the achievement of its own end in the literary game, in contrast to his earlier texts, which on a smaller desktop are more reader-friendly and humanly impulsive. Quite regularly Ajvaz’s bizarre stories end in a banal and entirely normal situation, like when we earlier moved from a Prague street into a strange other world, which hides from that world which is commonly seen. In this way he is nearer to Arbes’ Prague mysteries than to Poe’s world, permanently quivering in a black dread, or Durrenmatt’s absurdly tuned stories.
Does Ajvaz create in his combination of regular day-to-day details from Prague streets, nooks, and crannies a new and entirely original myth of Prague? Or does he only continue in the development of that tradition, at whose beginning evolved the myth of St. Wenceslas and St. Vojtek, and moved onto that of St. John, and further on the first Golem and Faustian myths, right up to the mysticism of Prague in the works of Neruda and others?
If we speak about Ajvaz’s attitude towards the authenticity of daily life as it normally occurs, without the daily rat race we are capable of perceiving in it, then we must also call on the name of Franz Kafka. This is possible to challenge, that in Kafka there is a more prevalent timelessness and indefiniteness than in Ajvaz, who uses a specific identification of reality in our own time. But the aridity and the chilly pragmatism of the characters that nearly disconnects Kafka and Ajvaz at the same time brings them together – in all ways – in a prevalent appeal for a deepening and multilayered experience of an apparently ordinary fate. Only that element of Kafka’s fateful inconclusiveness is missing in Ajvaz, and yet (albeit demurely) he inclines towards a certain “poeticization” of the story.
Many hints about the author’s aesthetic are summarized in the collection Secret Books (Brno 1997). In his texts appear Rilke, Proust, Holderlin, Kafka, Neitzsche, Morgenstern, the ambiguously understood Ernst Junger, Gombrowicz, Borges, Meyrink, Leo Perutz, Petr Král, and Ladislav Klíma. They are names close to Ajvaz, authors with big imaginations combined with an original way of looking beyond the border of the familiar, phenomenal world.
And in that book, the text that truly engages in the mysticism of the city is “The Metamorphoses of Prague” (previously published in the magazine Prostor [Space] 1992). He doesn’t believe that contemporary commercialization and thriving tourist bustle could ruin the myth of Prague’s historical center. He sees now that at night there are phantoms sitting in McDonald’s, and the thousands of new business flyers at the doors of people’s homes are, according to him, by way of enigma like a charm, and supposes that they concern “an agency of secret societies of Egyptian priesthoods, an architect of labyrinths, the import of spare parts to mechanical sculptures, which at night wander rooms, a travel agency arranging an ocean cruise, all concealed in the depths of the city.”
Ajvaz’s work provokes, it incites multiple ways of understanding our lives, which we spend unconsciously in that labyrinth; he evokes chaos as an uncontrolled element, which penetrates through the cracks into everyday banality. According to him, we discover the sense of one’s existence by that which we have yet to enter, into “the opening of unknown lands” (“Metaphysical Fastidiousness,” in the book Secret Books). Indeed, as far as he has already grown into an unusual literary transposition of authentically contemporary animate details, he now stands at a fateful intersection; he can go still farther and it is possible to create only stereotypically developing variations on a theme, or completely abandon that well traveled path on which a safe success is assured. What remains to be seen could be in the spirit of the concluding chapter in his study Character and Essence, when he states: “The road is something that has gradation.”
Dr. PhDr. Jiří Urbanec, CSc.
(The author lectures on Czech literature and literary theory at the Silesian University in Opava.)
Translation from the original Czech by Meghan Forbes.