To give some background on this peculiar novella, The Last Days of New Paris, consider this: No dedicated Science Fiction (SF) novel for adults has ever won the Man Booker prize for literature. It has been vehemently debated that the Man Booker Prize judges, like the judges of other high-profile, establishment literary awards, shy away from submissions from SF writers, because, firstly, SF is viewed as “low-brow” youth culture writing, being frequently confused with Fantasy writing. Secondly, SF is seen as too obscure or leading-edge, and thirdly, they presuppose that in order to understand SF, readers have to have read a lot of it or have specialized knowledge of technology or science, limiting its appeal.
Practically speaking, SF is often hard to read and appreciate because of futuristic subjects and the introduction of new concepts that authors have to create new words or languages for. (For instance Klingon and Na’vi.) Both authors and readers need tremendous powers of imagination. China Miéville has invented new words and languages for many of his mind-boggling SF works, and in The Last Days of New Paris, he does it again. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, for the reasons listed above, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there.
Imagine the unimaginable
The concept is novel, pardon the pun: in an alternate history, the 1940s and 1950s, the Nazis have won the war and taken over Paris, now called New Paris. The main character, a young guerrilla fighter called “Thibaut”, belongs to a group of survivors called the “main á plume”. They are fighting a war in which the city’s leading art movement, Surrealism, has been hijacked by the Nazis to create frightening war machines. Yes, artworks come to life, and more specifically, Surrealist artworks come to life. They are called “manifs” (from: manifestations):
“Thibaut unspools it [the film] a little, lets a streetlamp outside the window shine through it. He squints at the tiny images. Occluded streets in negative. Tanks by the pyramid in Parc Monceau, firing in formation at a great sickle-headed fish, a Lam manif swimming violently in the air. A humanish pillar. Thibaut looks closer. It is a woman made up of outsized pebbles, lying down on the grass, her legs languorously in the water.” (p.55)
These descriptions fill much of the book’s text. Miéville lists more than 160 Surrealist art-works, from paintings to literature, from which he has created the “manifs”, in his notes at the end of the novel. The protagonists run or fight through Paris, and they meet various eye-straining types of art-come-to-life. Every so often, a Surrealist painting is described like it’s some kind of yowling, careening monster.
You’ve got to know some Surrealism
You will get lost in this novel unless you know something about Surrealism, the references are that densely packed. There is no doubt in my mind that Miéville has studied this art movement in depth and has a thorough knowledge of all aspects. For instance: Thibaut’s group, the main á plume, refers historically to a group of young people in France who decided, in the absence of the leader of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, to create a support movement in occupied France. The name of their group, Main á Plume, referred to a verse by French pre-Surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud, “La main à plume vaut la main à charrue”, meaning “the writer’s hand is as important as the hand that guides the plough”.
Surrealism was a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature (roughly from the 1920s to the end of the 1960s) that wanted to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images – a stone woman, a fish with a sickle for a head, a man with an apple for a face, melting clocks on trees. (Remember those? See below.) Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself. Below are some classical Surrealist paintings. All but The Persistence of Memory by Dalí is referred to in the novel, as one of the “manifs”.
Mixing up the times
The high point in the novel is when Miéville reveals the greatest weapon of the Nazis – not only the subversion of Surrealism, but of religion:
“’They’ve made their own demon,’ Sam screams…[…] Made under German orders, by [Joseph] Mengele’s biological research and Alesch’s toxic faith, from the broken Matter of Hell’s narratives and from the energies of manifested executed art and their own murderous tech. To be a loyal demon, to be made of Nazi triumph. The avatar of the defeat of France.” (p.152)
AN ASIDE: A TYPICAL TEXT IN SURREALIST STYLE
“It was the end of sorrow lies. The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle. The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus. The time had come. Yet king dogs never grow old – they stay young and fit, and someday they might come to the beach and have a few drinks, a few laughs, and get on with it. But not now. The time had come; we all knew it. But who would go first? (André Breton, Le Champs Magnetiques)
“Through a boundary into the seventh. His ears pop. Another shot. Thibaut smells sap. The avenue de Breteuil is full of aspen trees. Their boughs stretch out to touch the houses. The complex of Les Invalides, that sprawling and once-opulent old military zone, is out of sight, having been overcome by millennial vegetation. Lampposts struggle up from roots and roofs from the canopy. The Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides is filled with bark. The Musée de l’Armée is being emptied, with slow, vegetable disorder, its weapons gripped and tugged over weeks out of their cases by curious undergrowth.” (China Miéville, The Last Days of New Paris, p. 34)
Do the two texts look similar in style?
This introduction of a religious element bothered me, since hell or demons seem old-fashioned, traditional, even clichéd ideas for a SF novel. Besides, the connotation between Nazis and occultism is an old one. But the ultimate evil that Miéville comes up with next is much worse: Adolf Hitler’s own bland art – clean and pretty and without character or people, the antithesis of Surrealism, becomes the ultimate evil, changing Paris from a real city into a lifeless fake, but luckily not permanently:
“And in its wake, as its wan precision is replaced by that stochastic rigor, that self-dreamed dream, the buildings that it saw into twee perfection are less perfect again…they remember their cracks, And then, with breaths of stone-dust they are back to ruination, or are not there, or are battered by age, scarred with the stuff of history, again. Paris is Paris.” (p.166)
Well, many art critics over the years have said that Hitler’s paintings are mediocre. They have not gone as far as to say they are the epitomy of the end of the civilized world and the ultimate weapons of Fascists.
Using an early 20th century movement, with 20th century philosophies, and 20th century threats, in a modern novel (even in the novel that is within the novel, which is said to have been written in 2012), seems contradictory and even verging on a fall-back to steam-punk. But “non-mimetic time” (timelines not imitating normal concepts of time, or disruption of normal concepts of time) is typical of both postmodernist literature and Cyber-punk (from way back when) and now again, Speculative or Science Fiction. Fiction with that approach is a closer representation of the current globalized, internet-of-everything, mesh-networked world, than normal timelines. So turning time on its head and mixing up history is something Miéville would do. It’s just weird, that’s all.
The language for “New Paris”
Of all the aspects of the novel, Miéville’s use of language, his writing style, gave me the most difficulty. While he describes massive feats of the imagination, he does it in language that seems almost mechanistic. The “narrator”, in the Afterword of the novel, describes it as “terse and dispassionate, even verbatim”. It is a good example, I thought, of classic SF “writing degree zero” – a flat, neutral style intended to depict things objectively. However, the style has to fit the characterization. Miéville’s explanation, according to the narrator, that it was written in a hurry in a hotel room and is basically a verbatim record of a conversation, is not justification enough, at least for me. I thought it was a difficult style choice for Miéville who is the consummate Word- and World-monger, not because it doesn’t fit the subject, but because it does. The text rolls forth much like a Surrealist text – discontinuous, abrupt, with “fragmented juxtapositions”, but at the same time, mechanistic. Like with his previous novel, This Census-Taker, he has perfectly and uniquely adapted his writing style to his subject and his genre. To take an early 20th century art movement and adapt the language to what is clearly SF is seriously twisted but brilliant. This is not a case of literary sophistication being reduced to, or limited to, stylistic complexity – like what happens in some SF novels. It is both. It is sophisticated and stylish.
I did not feel anything for any of the characters, and found that they had been quite “flattened”, which would be appropriate for characters who are not meant to be humanly engaging since they are no longer in a human environment or human themselves, like in “New Paris”. The exception was “Thibaut’s” protector, the one “manif” that does not try to kill him, the poor “exquisite corpse” which is a slung-together creation of body parts. An “exquisite corpse” was actually the result of collaborative game-playing among members of the Surrealist movement, in this case, André Breton himself, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy (1938). This exquisite corpse was counter-intuitively “un-flattened”.
The puzzling Afterword
In the Afterword, where Miéville switches from 3rd person to 1st person narrator, the “narrator” says that the whole story had been told to him over a period of 39 hours by a man he didn’t know, in a hotel in London, in 2012.
“Of course it was absurd. But sitting there in that cheap chair exhaustedly listening to the visitor tell me about life-and-death battles, while London’s late-night traffic muttered outside, it didn’t seem so. It seemed possible, then plausible, then likely.” (p.177)
In autobiographical fiction, (fiction that incorporates the author’s own experience into a historical narrative) the first person narrator is the character of the author (with varying degrees of historical accuracy). The narrator is still distinct from the author and must behave like any other character and any other first person narrator. In some autobiographical fiction, like The Last Days of New Paris, the narrator is writing a book—the book of the history of New Paris, in this case—and therefore he has most of the powers and knowledge of the author. So, is the narrator in the Afterword, China Miéville, or is he (or she) not? It would add a fascinating twist to the plot if it were the case.
I liked the “Surrealization” of the novel, because I love art. I wondered what would’ve been the result if he had chosen another art movement, for instance Impressionism, or Pop Art. However, Surrealism is a good choice because of its revolutionary aims and the fact that it took place at an important time in history:
“Perhaps some understanding of the nature of the manifs of New Paris, of the source and power of art and manifestation, may be of some help to us, in times to come.” (p. 182).
This is what the narrator concludes. As history has shown us, art does indeed have the power to change the world. It certainly has the power to endure throughout history and outlast most events. (Refer to my review of The Noise of Time which has freedom of artistic expression and the use of art for propaganda as sub-themes.) Because of his use of Art as a Weapon as both a theme and a premise, this novella is a tricky but neat little puzzle. In every way it demonstrates Miéville’s mastery of his subject, his craft and the SF genre.