There is much to be written regarding Michal Ajvaz’s recently translated novel, The Golden Age, published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. In this post, I will limit myself to the interesting question of its lineage. Though reviewers have likened The Golden Age to the work of Franz Kafka, Jonathan Swift and Jorge Luis Borges, I think the first two are more incidental to it. Yes, there is a scene that takes place in Prague which is decidedly fantastical, but there is little else of Kafka in the work. And it is true that the main storyline takes place on a mysterious island that has been traveled to by the protagonist and so reminds of us of Gulliver’s Travels. But Ajvaz’s rather lengthy novel has a singular focus on the society that inhabits the aforementioned island, which differentiates it from Swift’s tale, in which Gulliver travels to many different islands. Furthermore, whereas the societies on the islands in Swift’s work are depicted using the best traditions of satirical comedy, e.g., taking to absurd lengths many recognizable conventions of human society, the notable aspect of the depiction of the civilization on the unnamed island in Ajvaz’s work is the degree to which the author works to make it not resemble any conventions of human society.
And this is when I find myself turning to the last name on the list, Jorge Luis Borges, especially the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And I have in mind here primarily “Tlon”: in this story, Borges describes a world that, even in the context of the story, is fictitious even if it is also seemingly real, and which does not abide by the usual rules of language, culture, and social dynamics. In addition, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” has multiple stories within the story, so much so that the reader becomes confused as to what the actual storyline is. All of these things can also be said of The Golden Age. But here, once again, the matter of length is important. For Borges’ story is all of twelve pages long, while Ajvaz’s novel is fully 322 pages long. To sustain such a non-existing/existing, non-substantial/substantial world, founded on ideas and language as much as it is on any physical reality, is a considerable achievement for Ajvaz.
It also raises in my mind the question of whether one of Ajvaz’s many projects is to elaborate on and extend the work of some of the more fantastical writers working in an idealistic mode, exemplified by Borges. I am also thinking in this regard of Ajvaz’s work 55 měst (55 Cities), which is “a catalogue of settlements which Marco Polo related to Kublai Khan, compiled in honor of Calvino,” a work clearly inspired by, and building upon the foundation of, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (I translated a small portion of this work, which appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal).
This is not to suggest that Ajvaz’s work is derivative — indeed, the adjective I would use to describe his brilliant novel Druhé město (The Other City) would be “Ajvazian”, so unique is it — but it does suggest that he considers himself to be working within a broader tradition of which Borges and Calvino are key figures, much as we would consider irrealism to be a part of the “Kafkan” tradition. I will certainly be contemplating this possibility as I read more of Ajvaz’s work, both his fiction and his critical work (including a book length essay on Borges). However, it will be slower going for me as the rest of his work hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I will therefore be reading it in Czech. Next up for me will be a critical essay that Ajvaz wrote about Foucault’s essay on Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), a logical enough choice as I too wrote an essay about Foucault’s essay.
In Praise of Kaela
(an additional note in regard to The Golden Age)
And what is the second thing I will be saying about this work? Even somebody who has read Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age might wonder, assuming it had been a while since they’d read the work, who or what is the “Kaela” that I am praising in the title of this postscript? Kaela, as it happens, is the narrator’s girlfriend, the woman with whom he has a relationship while he is staying on the island and the reason I’m praising her (or, especially, Ajvaz’s treatment of her) is that we know virtually nothing about her. Not what she looks like, not who her parents are, not what she did for a living (not that it’s clear that the Islanders exactly ever do anything “for a living”). Indeed, even the few times we learn how she reacts to what the narrator says or does, this reaction is not unique to her, but serves to indicate to us the reactions of the islanders in general. It is apparent in reading this work that Ajvaz knows full well that when writing a didactic work (and for all its richness, this is a very didactic work) one does not muddy it up with cliched concerns about “fully developing” the characters. Indeed, I can’t help thinking in this regard of seeing a brief feature about Ajvaz on Czech television in which he is asked about which contemporary authors he reads, and he responded that he is largely focused on the various aspects of his own work (which presumably includes, e.g., as he wrote a book length essay about him, close readings of Borges) and so doesn’t read much of his contempories. Perhaps, then, this is why he hasn’t been infected by the contagion of gratiuitous characterization in works of fantastic fiction. Or, more likely, he is simply immune to the contagion.
Two things, besides my reading of The Golden Age, have helped bring this issue to mind. The first was a recent visit by a (now) retired professor of English who, with one comment, inspired me to write a paper that helped me to clarify the issue of characterization in fantastic literature. The second was the fact that, while sorting through some papers, I just came across an excellent essay that long ago influenced me in this matter of characterization: Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (Science Fiction Studies 2:112-119, July 1975). In it, Russ states that science fiction, like much medieval literature (and, I would argue, virtually all fantastic fiction), is essentially a form of didactic fiction. “That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures)…I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes [which can be considered] as among the ancestors of science fiction.”