What a very, very unusual novella.
Ok, so this is Paris in the 1940s and the Nazis are trying to take over the city. We follow the resistance fighter Thibaut as he undertakes an exhausting trip through the abandoned streets. The Nazis can’t take the city. Why? Because 15 years earlier, the French Surrealist painters let off some kind of bomb that caused all their Surrealist artwork to come to life. Paris is now populated by the creations of painters like Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. These manifestations, or ‘manifs’, are quite lethal and aggressive.
At the same time, demons are crawling from the ground and this is brought about as a Nazi counteroffensive. Soon, Nazis, la resistance, demons and surreal manifestations are all fighting to survive in a new Paris, and all four parties feel equally lost in a strange world.
Mieville does not shy away from putting ideas in his stories that many other writers would dismiss as too weird. All his novels so far take one or more strange ideas and treat them totally seriously, just to see where that would lead. Short stories in his collection Three Moments of an Explosion (2015) feature oil rigs come to life and people wearing living pig masks. Perhaps it was a matter of time before Mieville would turn to the Surrealist painters and just straight up throw all their work into one crazy story.
It feels like this novel should be laying in a museum tourist store. It was only after a quarter of the way in that I discovered a list of notes at the end with references to actual artworks.
But what of it? Mieville has the writerly skill to make it all compelling and creepy, but what’s the point of it? It’s interesting that he put it all against the backdrop of the Nazi invasions, because the surrealists were active during that same period. The immediate presence of Surrealist creatures in the story makes it a matter of life and death to know and understand the surrealist painters, and for the Germans to create their own version of surrealism to counter the creatures. When Thibaut says about the Nazis: “I think they want their own manifs”, then perhaps this novella is about a clash of cultures on a deeper level, and the attempt by the Nazis to create a new culture to counter the culturally richer and older French traditions.
Mieville shows deep imagination in bringing all these artworks to life, but the story is thin and sluggish. The characters Thibaut and Sam just wander around with some acquired super powers, while Mieville is dropping names from his research notes. The writing is cryptic to a fault and has turns of phrase that make me think: “what are you talking about?” Like: “he walks with the exquisite corpse, avatar of mad love, in a week of kindness.” Whether there is any meaning behind all this is up to us, I suppose. Mieville might wanted this novella to be a work of surrealism itself too.
Mieville starts his novella with a quote that says that it is a childish question to ask of surrealist art what you are supposed to feel about it. Nevertheless, the novella felt lacking in meaning to me. This story would have worked much better if there had been a stronger focus on characters and their motivations or journeys, and a stronger sense of wonder or the uncanny, like in Vandermeer’s Annihilation or the brothers Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. Instead, the surrealist scenes felt randomly inserted, without meaning, and put into a novel just to be clever; and the writing overwrought.
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