Review: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz

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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.

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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.