“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be,” wrote Andre Breton, the surrealist who tried to impose some kind of system on the movement that wanted to liberate our dreams and our demons. China Mieville has been called, among other things, a surrealist. And it’s true–his many books are compulsively weird, in all the best possible ways. Mieville writes about the grungy side of cities, of monsters and of people who serve them, and he does it in an anti-Tolkien kind of fantasy that celebrates the dark ironies of our histories. It seems almost inevitable that he would write a novel like his new one, The Last Days of New Paris, where the creations of surrealist paintings and poetry come to life and fight off the Nazi enemies of art.
Although it might be counterproductive to impose the chronology of narrative on a book that is mostly a celebration of images and of the things images might give us, Mieville does provide a story to structure things. In this alternative 1941, a secret weapon explodes in Nazi-occupied Paris, releasing an “S-blast” that manifests all the creations of the surrealist imaginations that had lived in the city for the previous twenty years. As Mieville describes it, “A blast, an acceleration, the distillate, the spirit, the history, the weaponized soul of convulsive beauty went critical.” Tables with the snarling mouths of wolves chase people through the streets. An elephant, “the size of a warehouse” and made of geometric shapes, crushes Parisian streets. Tentacled monsters rise from the ruins to eat whatever stumbles into their pits. Against all of this the Nazis create demons, supernatural creatures that eat art.
History is erased or at least significantly altered. By 1950 the battles between the real and the imagined are still raging. And Mieville doesn’t quite let his readers make that distinction, either. He gives us two stories: in addition to the terrifying battles of 1950 (told from the perspective of Thibault, a half superhero, half hard-boiled detective), we hear the tale of how the surrealist bomb made it into Paris. By the end we learn that both of these narratives are couched in an “as-told-to story” given to the author much later. Fantasy inside of fantasy, even as it starts to intrude on reality.
At the very end, Mieville writes out the notes that identify the images. For instance, we get this one taking us back to page 63:
a monkey with owl’s eyes: The monkey on the windowsill is instantly recognized as a manif of the beast crouching at the feet of the semi-nude woman in a doorway in Dorothea Tanning’s 1942 painting The Birthday.
This novel, both funny and terrifying, attempts to blur the lines between the real and the imagined.
China Mieville will be in town for a week, reading from The Last Days of New Paris on October 4, giving the Annual Distinguished Lecture on Europe on October 5, and discussing his work with U-M English professor Joshua Miller on October 6.