The Other City is an obscure novel, but a very important one. Michal Ajvaz‘s haunting, difficult prose is a bizarre, labyrinthine journey through Prague–the City of a Thousand Spires–that will leave you alternately breathless, laughing out loud, or utterly confused.
There is nothing remotely conventional about this book. You can quite literally get lost in it (just like the unnamed narrator), in the many hidden worlds it examines: entirely unknown, nocturnal realities coexisting with our own in the dark corners and midnight gardens of our own cities.
Prague itself is the most compelling character: an elegant, seductive, maddening mistress of snow-covered cobblestones and gothic spires. You will be dying to book a flight within the first few chapters. Yet the Prague we know is just a starting point:
“The frontier of our world is not far away…it glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings. Out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edge of a virgin forest.”
The story begins in an old Prague bookshop where the narrator discovers an unmarked volume bound in purple velvet. The pages are filled with an indescribable, unknown alphabet that, when placed on his shelves at home, begins to spread and infect the pages of all the books nearby. In his quest to understand the strange book and its engravings of lost temples, the narrator stumbles in and out of an “other” Prague (the source of the unknown alphabet), an entire hidden, incomprehensible civilization existing on the fringes and in the hidden spaces of our own world.
I won’t spoil the fun, but you can expect to wander through subterranean churches filled with glass sculptures (themselves filled with schools of fish); through gargantuan libraries filled with jungles and forgotten ruins where visitors often lose their way looking for a book, never to return; there are elk stables hidden in the hollows of Prague’s statuaries, and night-classes at 3am in its universities on the history of unknown wars.
Ajvaz’s magical realism is narratively complex, and very challenging to read. It requires focused attention just to finish one short chapter. You will get lost and confused, especially if you look for meaning or purpose in the bizarre rituals of the Other City.
In the end, the novel isn’t narratively satisfying. There’s no sense of progress, closure, or accomplishment, and the narrator never develops into a character in his own right. But reading The Other City is like having the most eccentrically beautiful dreams of your life, and then waking up and laughing at their brilliant absurdity.
Think of the chapters as prose poems instead of serialized episodes in a story, and you’ll enjoy the book more. I highly recommend it, and it’s short enough to read in a few sittings, but dense enough to come back to several times.