Review: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz

Empty_Streets_AI_cover
Courtesy of Dalkeyarchive.com

Michal Ajvaz’s Empty Streets is less a novel than it is a 500 page torrent of ideas, a wild outpouring of pure imagination.  This is a love letter to the strange and unexpected; part-detective story, part-excavation of a city’s long buried dream life.  Like the mysterious symbol that lies in the center of its multiple branching narratives, it seems to spill in all different directions at once.  This is an aggressively bizarre work of fiction, one that seems unconcerned with traditional modes of storytelling.  It runs the gamut in terms of narrative form and style, sending the reader spinning from one story to the next.

It’s a wild, often unwieldy book, and all the better for it.  I can think of few dreamscapes in which I’d rather spend my time.

The novel begins with what is effectively a frame narrative.  Our narrator is a nameless author struggling his way through an ungovernable case of writer’s block.  One day, in an attempt to avoid the writing that torments him so, he goes for a long walk that takes him through a local rubbish dump.  He accidentally steps on a wooden object half-buried beneath the mess, some kind of carving in the shape of a double trident.  Immediately the object stirs something in our narrator. He is beset with questions he can’t answer.  What’s this strange artifact?  Could it be a tool?  Some kind of abstract artwork?  Where did this double trident come from, and what, if anything, does it mean?

As if the inherent strangeness of the object’s design weren’t enough to captivate the narrator, it appears to be following him even after he leaves it behind in the dump.  The strange shape intrudes upon him again the very next night, this time in a screensaver on the computer of an acquaintance.  When the narrator asks his friend about the symbol, he stumbles onto what proves to be the first of many long, strange tales that comprise the bulk of the novel.  These stories weave in and out of one another in unexpected ways, while all managing to somehow touch on the double trident symbol, a missing girl named Viola Jonášová, and a secret history of Czech artist under Communist rule.

From the screensaver we move on to Viola’s father, who arranges a meeting with the narrator and begs his assistance in finding the missing girl.  The narrator reluctantly agrees, and from there the novel is properly underway, evolving into what can only be described as a detective story by way of the 1001 Nights.

The narrator follows various leads in his search for Viola, gathering clues and encountering one strange character after another.  He listens to their stories, sifting through them for traces of Viola and the mysterious symbol that follows her, which only leads him into a thicker mire of stories.

Each tale the narrator hears has an inescapable element of strangeness, however minute.  In one instance a single light suddenly turns on in an oil painting of a distant building.  In another, a diver finds himself face-to-face with a sculpture of a woman growing from the seabed.  It’s as if Viola and the double trident are drawing individual citizens of Prague out of their regular lives and into a dream space.

We hear the history of disgraced Neoplatonist philosophers traveling the mountains of Afghanistan.

We attend a masquerade in which all the guests dress as buildings lit up beneath a nighttime sky.

We read of strange meeting between women made of living newspaper.

It should be noted that at no point in this parade of marvels and oddities is Ajvaz concerned with investing his characters with much psychological realism.  His focus is always on imagination and metaphysical speculation.  Our narrator is not a fleshed out character.  He’s something altogether more hollow, a reader surrogate in the style of Philip Marlowe and other classic noir detectives, while the various characters he encounters are perhaps thinner still, little more than empty vessels built to bear Ajvaz’s wild, increasingly bizarre tales.  For Ajvaz, language and concepts are as much characters as any singular individual.  For example, as the narrator listens to one character’s story of revolution in a labyrinthine South American city, he thinks to himself:

It seemed to me that the main hero of Bernet’s story was heat — a heat that melted thoughts, memories, and aims and restored to consciousness an older, slower time they had once shared, plunging everything into a life of whispers, waves, and murmurs.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.com
Courtesy of Wikipedia.com

But while Ajvaz has produced a work steeped in the unreal, in which both the reader and narrator sense they have crossed from one world into another, he resists pushing any one of his narratives too far in that otherworldly direction.  Time after time the narrator is presented with the unexplainable, and without fail that impossibility is explained, only to be quickly replaced by a new and stranger mystery nestled in another character’s tale.

It’s an interesting choice on Ajvaz’s part, creating a work that is so obviously enamored with the bizarre and mysterious, while managing to avoid any instances of hard and fast magic.

Rather than push the text far outside the confines of reality, he prefers rather to skirt its periphery, creating a series of hairline fractures that ever so slightly separate our familiar reality with the world of the book.  When combined with the variety of ways in which these stories unfold for the reader — personal anecdotes, dreams, short stories, operas, even the Borgesian paraphrasing of the plot of an entire nonexistent novel — it creates a kind of narrative relativism.  When everything is reduced to story all stories become equal. As the narrator himself describes it:

…from the beginning, all these encounters have been attended by the ghost of Viola, which infects everything with unreality and has the power to transform all faces into phantoms.  When I look back on all those encounters, the faces of people I’ve spoken with merge with the images in their stories and characters I invent as I try to reconstruct what happened to Viola.

We find ourselves as readers in a position similar to the narrator, attempting to navigate so many disparate styles and narrative forms at once that a permanent sense of unease sets in.  There’s no clear line through the narrative, rather a cosmic swirl of motifs and patterns, emptiness and transformation.  And this is entirely intentional on Ajvaz’s part.  In fact it’s the main source of the novel’s momentum.  The ongoing mystery of the missing Viola and the strange symbol is never presented as something that can be solved by logical means.  Instead, it’s the larger umbrella beneath which rests each unique story, arranged as a bouquet for the reader’s enjoyment.  As one tale flows into the next, the reader becomes gripped by an anticipation for whatever new marvel lies ahead, just one step beyond the limits of our reality.

While most of the novel is preoccupied with this tension between surface reality and the kind of subliminal reality represented by Viola and her symbol, Ajvaz does take the time to comment on Czech politics, specifically the abrupt changes that followed the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent protests that saw the end of forty-one years of Communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia.

The event and the era of rigidity that preceded it casts a long but subtle shadow over the entirety of Ajvaz’s novel.  The best example of which would be The White Triangle, a trio of extreme avante-garde artists operating in the 60’s, and one of the major pieces in the puzzle surrounding Viola and the mystery symbol.  Their bizarre work, emphasized by silence and self-effacement — books written in invisible ink, symphonies of silence and rustling paper, entire sculptures built beneath the sea — provide one of the book’s major through lines, one that parallels Ajvaz’s other themes of silence and transformation, while bringing them into a more concrete, political sphere.  As one storyteller relates to the narrator: “No one actually knew anything about the White Triangle, making it an empty notion into which everyone could project their own dreams.”  We’re presented with artists working in decades of heavy censorship and conformity, in which silence became its own form of artistic freedom.

Like the members of the White Triangle, many of the characters the narrator encounters in his travels were similarly marginalized by the political landscape that existed before 1989, and now find themselves too old to integrate into this new world.  They seem to exist in a kind of limbo, preoccupied with silence and an almost hermetic existence, and it’s no coincidence that Ajvaz employs such monastic figures as the gatekeepers of several narrative threads woven throughout the book, strands of a shadow reality accessible only through language, imagination, and transformation.  They’re a type the narrator is intimately familiar with, and one suspects he is slowly joining their ranks through his own journey into mystery:

The life of one was very much like that of another.  They had no real need to tell their stories; it was plain by the way they moved their hands as if directed by a light, invisible current that the rest of their bodies were too heavy for them.  Thirty years ago, when the realities of life in this country were transformed into a kind of weird dream and hope retreated from the world, in silence these types of people went away into the void, a void which took various forms.  There was nowhere in the now emerging world they were able to live, so they found themselves a no-place and settled there, for years.  When ten years ago the dream dissolved, they were used to this void in which they had lived for so long; they loved their no-place, its magic was well known to them, they were at home with the miracle of its fauna and flora.  What the world was now offering them, so it seemed, was precious little.  All those years partaking of the wonderful nectar of nothingness had made them hard to please; they had no appetite for food of another kind, nor could the splendors of any other building compare to those of the palace of emptiness.

This “palace of emptiness” — notions of silence and erasure — repeats again and again throughout Ajvaz’s novel.  They speak to an ideal that moves beyond artistic value and into the realm of the spiritual.  His is a kind of mysticism, a sanctifying of the space that lies outside of language, one that can only be gestured to from afar — through words, symbols, and chance encounters with the unknown.  It’s the strange power of stories to take you to such places.  The words form the passage that transports you outside them, to a place of thought, feeling, and imagination.  It’s what happens when your foot lands on a strange piece of wood, and you find yourself on the entryway to a world outside your own.  There are many such stories waiting for you inside this strange, beautiful novel.

I hope you do as I did, and take the time to get lost in them.

***

Photo_Bob SchofieldBob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneMan Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.

Art: Roni Horn, Discovering the Identity in Multiplicity and Dichotomy

Courtesy of wmagazine.com
Courtesy of wmagazine.com

I love the idea that no matter how obvious something could be, or transparent, there is still room for doubt. It is really interesting that transparency is not as transparent as you think.

These words of Roni Horn rang in my ears like a discovery of a hidden cabala.  Within the walls of this contemporary art museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, I experienced a journey of identity, ambiguity, and singularity through recurrent colours, words and photographs.

There is a harmony between Horn and her minimalist art.  Born in 1955, New York, where she still lives and works, she combines photography, sculpture and language.  She creates a vivid glance to her life whereby I also get a glimpse of mine.  Her questioning about the concept of identity leads me to explore along with her my own identity.  Her androgynous look, with sharp blue eyes is in perfect accordance with this exploration.  “When you see your reflection in water, do you recognize the water in you?” (2010) she asks in ‘one of the destinations of your journey’ through shapes, colours and words.

Courtesy of depont.nl
Courtesy of depont.nl

The journey begins in a long, time-warping corridor, with a 70 meters long wall on one side, on which her famous work of photographic series A.K.A (2008-2009) takes place; while small rooms resembling minimalistic caves accompany on the other side.  This highly successful installation creates a sense of a wormhole, where step by step, Roni Horn’s “selfless” self-portraits of various ages are paired on the wall, and they guide me while I go in and out the small rooms.  All the artworks are in a concordance, part of a whole, like chapters of a certain story.  In these rooms, the installation consciously helps to create the unity with all of her artworks.

 

Courtesy of depont.nl
Courtesy of depont.nl

In the rooms of “Portrait of an Image” (2003 & 2005), when I sit back and contemplate the 50 different portraits of the French actress Isabelle Huppert, I discover the uniqueness in multiplicity.  This repetition is amazingly clever.  These 50 portraits, each taken every morning one by one in a studio in Paris, make me feel like they are telling me a story.  Each look belongs to a character that Horn and Huppert randomly chose from the films that she played in.  Huppert’s impersonating of herself in her roles, through Horn’s camera, creates a unique story.  Just as in Eisenstein’s dialectical approach in film theory, the collision of each shot creates a different sequel, a three dimensional scene, in which these serial portraits seem more like they overlapping upon each other.

This concept is also visible in A.K.A.  The pairs of portraits are not ‘self’ portraits for Horn.  As she states, “This could be anybody”.  Ironically and successfully, this misidentification intensifies the sense of identification with the work.

depont.nl2
Courtesy of depont.nl

As David Hickey writes in his book about her art: “The mutable version of identity is not an aberration… the fixed version is the aberration.”  While each pair flows through the wall, the notion of identity gets blurry, and while it gets blurry the portraits become freer.  Free of time, free of space.  Photography is an image crystallised in the past, while we are in the present.  And liberating it from this crystallisation is one of the things I believe Roni Horn has achieved.  Each pair dialectically creates a new “one” frame.  This semiotic relationship continues in other rooms as well.  The dichotomy also appears in the works like “Dead Owl” (1997) and “Water Teller” (2014).

When the long corridor ends and I pass through the wormhole, all these chapters and rooms with multiplicity of colours, words, calligrams and portraits, reach to the concluding chapter of the story: a gigantic hall where I meet the final scene.

Courtesy of depont.nl
Courtesy of depont.nl

Massive glass cylinders are the final part of the journey of identity.  They look like liquid, as much as solid.  They are 5000 kilos of glass with the look of pure weightless fluid.  So just like the concept of identity, matter becomes blurry too.  The cylinders look like they are free of their mass and the material they are composed of.  They are beautifully opaque and transparent at the same time.

However, their transparency is an illusion…

The colours and words appear here too, with some phrases attributed to each piece.  The phrases look like they drifted away from a novel.  When I think about what these phrases refer to, I remember Horn’s description about identity: “a social assignment that has little to do with the thing it refers to”.  So maybe these words or colours do not need to refer to anything.  They just simply exist, and their simplicity is what makes them free and unleashed from their material, substance or attribution.  Just like those gigantic masses.

At the end, I felt the same sense of content as when I finish a book.  And the small cinematic room where you can watch a short documentary about the exhibition is definitely a perfect last touch.  In a general view, the exhibition is curated successfully and the installations are brilliant.

The word ‘journey’ is certainly well-deserved for this exhibition, where you can experience the minimalistic style and theme of Horn’s art at its best.  Additionally, the museum’s building perfectly suits Horn’s art—the raw industrial structure is simple and equally minimalistic, which gives it a sense of flow.

Through all the dualities, multiplicities, repetitions and uniqueness, an encounter of the ‘self’ of audience takes place exquisitely and simply.

***

cv imageDeniz Ezgi Kurt studied French Language & Literature at Hacettepe University, Media & Cultural Studies at Middle-East Technical University, and Cultural Studies at Tilburg University.  She writes since childhood and tries to mediate the knowledge academically.  She worked as a translator and a teacher.  As a fiction enthusiast and a passionate gamer, she writes on videogame culture, visual media and pop-culture.  After living most of her life in Turkey, she now resides in Netherlands.

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

UnknownTired

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two –

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.

In the 1986 foreword to Hughes’ first autobiography — The Big Sea — Amiri Baraka writes, “Langston is the Jazz Poet! He is the singer, the philosopher, the folk and urban lyricist. His poetry is still one of the touchstones of American civilization, in its originality, feeling, and open commitment to social transformation.”  Langston Hughes is one of the most popular poets in North America, and is famous as one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Jessie Redmond Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine where Hughes published his poetry, once said to Hughes, “You assuredly have the true poetic touch, the divine afflatus, which will someday carry you far.”  Hughes’ poems are well-known and beloved, and lines have been used in popular book titles such as “Black like Me” by John Howard Griffin, and “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, but his influence is more than that, as I’ve come to realize over the years.

Hughes was a poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and a social activist who I’ve been familiar with for the last decade or so.  He started publishing his poetry in 1921 and his first autobiography was published in 1940.  Decades later Hughes is still as important as ever.  Funnily enough, he began to write poetry mainly because of a stereotype his teacher held:

“I was a victim of a stereotype.  There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry.  Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” – Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes’ poems explore various themes such as religion, race, racism, love, and the diaspora.  His poetry is readable, yet profound.  He is a humanist whose poetry discusses subtleties in a wide range of poetry topics.  As a woman I was pleased to see Hughes wrote about women in an understanding and compassionate way, particularly as the Harlem Renaissance has often been criticized about being patriarchal and misogynistic:

imagesTroubled Woman

She stands

In the quiet darkness,

This troubled woman

Bowed by

Weariness and pain

Like an

Autumn flower

In the frozen rain,

Like a

Wind-blown autumn flower

That never lifts its head

Again.

Rereading Hughes recently reminds me of the fact that he was the first poet who made poetry accessible to me, particularly by creating poetry I found relatable to some of my experiences as a member of the black diaspora. Hughes brought to life the black experience in poetry form; the Harlem I had always heard about or seen in movies was illuminated by his words, and the lives of everyday folk that I wasn’t used to reading about were immortalized. To me this was all so very unlike the British poetry I grew up on which, although good, I always felt a disconnect from.

Several of Hughes’ poetry, in this age of the much publicized news on police brutality towards black Americans, serve as a much needed balm.  It not only seems prescient in that so many of his poems are still relevant to this present time, his poetry also has cathartic and therapeutic qualities, and is often a reminder to black Americans that they are strong, powerful people, and in these times, poetry is as essential as ever:

Unknown-1My People

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

I opened my copy of Hughes’ Selected Poems after hearing the news of Philando Castile’s murder by the police and came across the poem “Democracy”, which seemed just right to voice the frustrations of black people living in the U.S.:

Democracy [Excerpt]

I tire so of hearing people say,

‘Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.’

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead,

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Reading his two autobiographies — The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander — I was able to get a deeper sense of who Hughes was, and which events and experiences contributed to the man he became.  With his wit, dreams, keen observations of life, this explorer who encountered the world and met with issues of race at every turn, left us two very insightful accounts of his life.  Being a black man in America, race is on the forefront of many of his observations, and Hughes’ explorations of what it means to be black in America, in Mexico, in Europe, and in Africa, are very important accounts to this very day.

Hughes’ poetry still has great reach and influence.  It seems to me that to be someone of Hughes’ calibre, it’s important to be a compassionate and sensitive observer.

After all, I suppose, how anything is seen depends on whose eyes look at it.

Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander

***

IMG_7386Rowena was raised in Scotland and Malawi and now calls Vancouver, Canada home.  Because of her diverse upbringing Rowena has always been passionate and inquisitive about culture and identity.  As a graduate of Intercultural and International Communication, her prime focuses and interests lay in issues of diversity, feminism, identity and storytelling.  Rowena finds that literature and music keep her very grounded.

The Things That Words and Pictures Do

cecile-illustration1 The question isn’t whether or not literary magazines need images—it’s about how many.  How much is too much?  There may have been a time when literary magazines could do without them.  That time has passed. We all live on the Internet now, where the playing field between text and image has been leveled.  These days we swim through them in equal measure, only breaching the surface to leap from one tab to the next.  So the real question is: What’s the best ratio?  How does the editor of a literary magazine balance word against image?  Is the ratio 4:1?  3:1?  At what point does a collection go from being a literary text to a glorified art book?

And is it even a bad thing if that were to happen? Read More

Art Review: Outside[,] the Frames

In the Chaillot neighborhood of Paris on Saturday mornings, there’s usually an outdoor “marché” along Avenue President Wilson between the avenues d’Iéna and Marceau.  It’s a quintessentially French affair filled with wines, cheeses, meats, poultries, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as a sumptuous variety of prepared foods.  The smells are intoxicating and the event is always lively and full of good cheer.  My husband and I knew it was not likely to be open the morning after the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, but we went anyway just hoping to be around others and not be so isolated within the confines of our apartment, in [fear] [sadness] [resignation] [(all of the above)].

2015-11-16 14.37.06As we suspected, the marché didn’t take place, but still feeling the need to be out, we headed down President Wilson.  We came to the Palais de Tokio, alongside which there’s a staircase that leads down to some streets adjacent to the Seine.  Having just recently moved to this neighborhood, we hadn’t noticed this area before and went to explore.  Directly at the bottom of the staircase is Rue de la Manutention which after a short block ends in Port Debily on the Seine.  There is a small bridge there called the Pasarelle Debily that crosses the river and leaves you in front of the Museé de Quai Branly.  The Quai Branly is a promenade along the south bank of the Seine, very close to the Eiffel Tower, where we discovered an outdoor installation of photography called We Are Family. Read More

Photography Reflection: Ciao, Ciao Rio!

lens-1280307_960_720Each photo session was filled with anxiety.  Though I’d brainstorm ideas before each shoot, collaborating with models was preferred.  Suggestions were always considered. But they didn’t always go as expected—some were complete flops.

I once rented a boat.  Two fishermen sailed a 2-spirit person (a transwoman in mainstream-lingo) named Cíntia and myself near Forte de São Marcelo just off the coast of Salvador (Brazil).  Our photo shoot was scheduled to take place just off shore.  However, turbulent waves swayed our vessel, leaving me one wave short of regurgitating on deck.  And just when my stomach was ready to topple over the fishermen received my direct order to hastily return our party to dry land.

Another incident occurred during a photo session on my veranda.  Perched over Rua do Carmo, this very public viewpoint attracted the inquisitive eyes of several neighborhood men, some of whom were the same ruffians who’d opened a can of whup-ass on a third rate thief a few weeks ago.  Amongst the crowd was Gregorio, a beloved street-wanderer based in the local community of Santo Antonio.  Excessive intake of cachaça and other alcoholic drinks was his preferred method of escape from so much tolerant oppression and daily depravities in Brazil.  However, the mean streets of the historic center couldn’t have found a more upbeat soul than good ol’ Gregorio, regularly intoxicated but rarely, if at all, pissed-drunk.  Somehow he always seemed to be in my apartment, offering random advice about life or what not.  My roommate had furnished him with a spare key to look after the place while we were out and about.  Well, after my photo shoot, Gregorio pestered me time and time again about his superior sexual prowess and how his participation would drastically improve each and every one of my photo sessions. Read More

Opinion: The Age of Simulated Reality

Photo_Virtual realityVideo games appeared as an entertainment medium that caught our attention back in the 80’s.  In our childhood, many of us were fixated on our television screens while Mario jumped through walls and pipes, or while we were trying to shoot a duck with a Nintendo zapper.  Since then, games have evolved to a virtual realm—a simulation of reality.  The child’s play of the past has been transformed into a visual cinematic medium, which offers something more than cinema—interaction.  Video games can be considered as an interactive storyteller.  The question then is: why is this important?

 

There are different answers, but the concept of reality is a keyword here.  The notion of reality has been one of the subjects that preoccupied mankind.  From Aristotle to Hegel, great thinkers of humanity have asked the question “what is real?” and they have struggled to find an answer.  So, the simulation—the replica of reality—has become a subject of interest, sometimes even more appealing than reality itself.  We can think of fiction novels or stories as the first version of reality simulations.  Even just by reading, without any visual stimulus, an alternate form of reality can be experienced.  Our mind creates the images through words.

Read More

Writing Prompts: The Unexpected

SurrealismWhen I open a book I’m always hoping to be surprised.  It’s what I look for above all else.  Whether it’s in the narrative, or the language an author employs in its construction, I don’t ever want to know where I’m going in advance.

What I crave is uncertainty—that rush of possibility.  I want to be in free fall through a text.  I want to turn a corner and end up at some place unexpected.  Then take a few more steps, and enter somewhere stranger still. It’s this sense of discovery, of stumbling headfirst into the unfamiliar, that appeals to me most about surrealist and magical realist writing.

In its most interesting variations, the reader is discovering a space whose strange nature extends beyond the material.  The fantastical elements push beyond the physical realm, into something deeper.  These spaces, after all, are purely linguistics in nature.  They are built from and sustained by language, and, as such, basic laws of physics—our understanding of probability, space, and time; all the disparate threads woven through the fabric of reality are suddenly made malleable. Read More