I don’t usually go in for this kind of thing.
Despite a childhood of Tolkien and Douglas Adams, and although I am partial to a good bit of Kurt Vonnegut every once in a while, my reading habits are usually firmly rooted in the actual (whatever that might mean). But a person I know has recently been introduced to the author China Miéville, which means I, too, had to be introduced to the author China Miéville. And despite my initial skepticism with regards to looking at the work of a writer of fantasy—as already stated, not normally my “thing”—my attention was captured by one book in particular: The Last Days of New Paris.
The premise for the novella is the exploding, in 1941 mid-wartime Paris, of an S-bomb. This bomb unleashed not radioactivity, or even a massive explosion, but the power of Surrealism onto the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris, along with the elements of Hell.
The story takes up the narrative in 1950, an alternative Paris where the Nazis are still largely the occupiers of the city. The scene is set for some of the most bizarre monsters I think literature has seen in a long time. But it is not just a case of creatures stalking the streets, the architecture of the city has been altered. For example, the two towers either side of Nôtre Dame have become enormous silos, one containing a seeping mass of bloody vinegar, the other, better sealed, rumoured to contain sperm. This is a Paris that is almost unrecognisable under the weight of Surrealism. Almost. It is also cut off from the world completely, the Nazis wishing to contain the force that has taken over Paris, and prevent its spread to the rest of France and the world.
Amongst this, the book’s protagonist, Thibaut, a fighter on the side of Surrealism, wants out. He joins Sam, an American photographer, who is apparently there in order to document the ruins, and seems to be his only means of escape.
I have to admit that this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The methods through which visual art and literature intersect have always been of interest to me, and so the opportunity to read a work of fiction where Surrealism comes to life seemed like too interesting a proposition to decline. Where Miéville excels is in description. It can be difficult enough to describe a work of surrealist art without having to imagine it as a living, moving object, and this is something Miéville really achieves. For example:
“The chimneys of Paris are buffeted by ecstatic avian storm clouds. Bones inflated like airships. Flocks of bat-winged businessmen and ladies in outdated coats shout endless monologues of special offers and clog planes’ propellers with their own questionable meat.”
“In the shallows and the mud of the Île aux Cygnes, human hands crawl under spiral shells. A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth below the Pont-de-Grenouille. Rolling and rising, they eye him as he approaches and bit at the bobbing corpse of a horse. In front of each dorsal fin, each shark is hollow-backed, with a canoe seat.”
Miéville has certainly done his research, not only into Surrealism, but also into the war itself, especially wartime France. Thibaut and Sam, especially Thibaut, are well developed as well. I also enjoy the way in which the exploded art takes centre stage: this is not just another book about Nazis, although there are of course some who make an appearance, and, of course they are deeply involved in the narrative (the narrative would not exist without them), they take somewhat of a backseat.
It is also a quick read—Miéville has subtitled it as a novella, despite its length of 168 pages (which seems somewhere in between novella and novel), and I read it in a single evening. It has been a rare thing for me recently to encounter a book that makes me want to read on, and read on now. The Last Days of New Paris achieved this. Maybe I should venture into the world of fantasy more often.