by Madhu Kaza
It’s cold outside. New York City is probably exciting as ever out there, but I’m staying in with my soup and my soup spoon and all of the spoons, with books listing this way and that on the shelves, socks and sweaters stuffed into drawers, stray paperclips on the loose, dust storms gathering behind the sofa and an African stone egg that's warming either under my pillow or somewhere under my bed. It would all be uneventful, except that I’ve been rereading Michal Ajvaz’s novel, The Other City.
The Other City begins with the narrator taking refuge from a snowstorm in a bookstore in Prague. Through a series of magical encounters that follow, the novel leads us into “the other city,” which exists as a shadow city just beyond the Prague that is known. The Other City is a labyrinthine and fantastical place where books turn into jungles, the alphabet becomes a virus, oysters attack cities, and fish battle inside glass statues. Through the layering and pile up of surreal imagery Ajvaz conjures a world that is wonderful and terrible, a place of awe.
Though it’s a strange place the Other City is not inaccessible or distant. Ajvaz insists that if we truly learned how to look and pay attention we’d find that we are right at the edge of otherness: “The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. 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.” He notes that we overlook the nooks and crannies, the closets and the dusty spaces of our homes or between our homes where things are happening:
Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border. We are familiar with the strange queasiness we feel when we encounter the reverse side of things, and their inner cavities which refuse to take part in our game: when we shove aside a cabinet during spring-cleaning and we suddenly find ourselves looking at the ironically impassive face of its reverse side, which stares into dark chambers that are mirrored on its surface, when we unscrew the back of the television set and run our fingers over the tangle of wires, when we crawl under the bed for a pencil that rolled away and we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious cavern, whose walls are covered with magical, trembling wisps of dust, a cavern in which something evil is slowly maturing until one quiet day it will emerge into the light.
Ajvaz tells us not only that is there a world unfolding from the perspective of the spoons in a drawer, the backside of the cabinet, or the space between walls in an apartment, but also that encounters with this world can be frightening. “Every genuine encounter destroys our existing world,” says the narrator. What counts as a genuine encounter must be terrifying because it puts us in contact with the unknown; it makes the familiar strange.
I am reminded of the extraordinary prose piece that opens Julio Cortázar’s Instruction Manual in which the narrator speaks of an urgent need to unhinge oneself from the monotony of daily habit, from “the doggy satisfaction that everything is probably in its place, same woman beside you, same shoes, the same taste of the toothpaste, the same sad houses across the street.” The answer is not to change women, shoes, toothpaste and address; rather it is to change our relationship to our own habits, to open ourselves to genuine encounters. “Go ahead,” the narrator says, “deny up and down that the delicate act of turning the doorknob, that act which may transform everything, is done with the indifferent vigor of a daily reflex.” Like Ajvaz, Cortázar recognizes that opening ourselves up to new encounters with the already known world around us is risky: “Tighten your fingers around a teaspoon, feel its metal pulse, its mistrustful warning. How it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness.” Yet it’s vital for Cortázar that we defamaliarize ourselves from our routines, from what we already know of daily life and domestic spaces.
What I admire about The Other City, an admittedly difficult and plotless novel more interested in image than story, is how much it is on the side of every animal, plant and thing. The Other City made me think of Francis Ponge’s many prose poems dedicated to things such as “The Oyster,” “The Crate,” “The Pebble,” “The Radio,” and “The Frog.” In “The Pleasures of the Door” Ponge writes about the “happiness of seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its belly” and the satisfaction of hearing “the click of the powerful, well-oiled latch.” This satisfaction is not to be taken for granted, though; nor is it universally known. He writes, “Kings never touch doors. They’re not familiar with this happiness.” For Ajvaz the encounter with things is potentially more ecstatic and more dangerous than it is for Ponge, but there is a similar sympathy for the inanimate. Ajvaz grants a great degree of agency to things. He gestures to a world of things thinging near us, upon us, against us, independent of our knowledge. Like Nietzsche who argued that we cannot see or understand things-in-themselves, that there is no absolute knowledge or mastery of a thing, Ajvaz reminds us how little we see or know of the world around us.
Of course, anything can begin to seem strange if you are in a particular frame of mind. One night when I woke briefly at four in the morning and caught sight of the spines of my books lined up in their bookcases I was spooked by the thought of all the writers who were in the room with me while I slept. I was overwhelmed by thought of so much language keeping quiet in my space. Suddenly, the books seemed alive and the very idea of a book was bizarre, almost mystical. In a less intense way, I have found myself marveling that each ordinary thing in my apartment – my stapler, my desk, my lamp, the electrical power strip– was conceived, designed and constructed and that it somehow found its way into a particular arrangement in my home. And then there’s the African stone egg that is either under my pillow or under my bed. I love the egg though I don’t really know what it is. Who made it and what is it for?
In Marguerite Duras’ novel The Little Horses of Tarquinia an Italian grocer tells his customers, “No salt. It is a long time since I have understood with salt . . . Shoe polish, me? It is a long time since I have understood with shoe polish.” Duras’ novel is not a book about things, and in the context of the book it’s possible that this odd moment of dialogue is meant to indicate a problem in understanding between the Italian grocer and his French customers. It’s not clear. Leaving aside the context of the novel, the strange locution of “understanding with” something is nevertheless striking. To understand something suggests the possibility of mastering it. To “understand with” something is to be in a more uncertain field of relation to a thing, open to discovery. It’s cold outside. I’m staying in. I may begin the search for the stone egg. I might turn to Google to learn what it is. But I might need to look under the bed to understand with it.