Michal Ajvaz
August 10, 2012 4:19 AM   Subscribe

“The beast sets me riddles every evening, and when I fail to guess them, it kicks and bites me. It is like a small leopard and in other circumstances I should say it looked quite charming. So far I haven't solved a single one of these riddles…”—Michal Ajvaz.

Michal Ajvaz is a Czech poet, novelist, essayist, translator & philosopher. To date, two of his novels have been translated into English, both published by Dalkey Archive: ‘The Other City’ and ‘The Golden Age.’ A few other short texts by Ajvaz can be found on-line: ‘Riddles’ (see the first link above); ‘The Past’; ‘The End of The Garden’; ‘Two Compositions’; and ‘The City and Heaven.’
posted by misteraitch (19 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks - those novels have got to go on the reading list.
posted by Segundus at 4:29 AM on August 10, 2012

Kafkaesque (or Kafka-ish, at least)... love it!
posted by Acey at 4:59 AM on August 10, 2012

I was thinking it was more like Borges. Not that I am any kind of expert of either Kafka or Borges.

I can tell you for sure it's not a lot like Lovecraft. (But wait! Maybe the creature is in league with Nyarlathotep and solving the riddles leads to Azathoth's throne! Maybe it delivers the riddles in the Dutch language!!)
posted by JHarris at 5:20 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe the beast IS the answer.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:32 AM on August 10, 2012

Jeez I mean wouldn't you just know that when they hand out the Question Beasts I gotta get the one that's fucking schizoid?
posted by Segundus at 5:54 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it better to have a Question Beast who offers you difficult puzzles than one that asks "will you bring me a platter of food" (in its own language), and scratches and bites you when you say "no?"

We all get the Question Beasts we deserve.
posted by JHarris at 6:05 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd love a question beast. All I have is a fart chicken than pecks at me when I flatulate in my sleep. My wife claims she can't see it, but I have a feeling she bought it.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:11 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Both "The Other City" and "The Golden Age" are absolutely fantastic reads that I recommend whole-heartedly. "The Golden Age" in particular starts slow but then begins to evolve into a bizarre yet compulsively readable set of interlocking fever dreams. "The Other City" is chronicles a series of fantastic, illogical, frequently terrifying interruptions of everyday life. Along with China Mieville, Ajvaz has probably the sexiest imagination alive today.
posted by Rinku at 6:15 AM on August 10, 2012

I'd've enjoyed this more had it not relied so much on obscure and arcane cultural and geographic references. Charming concept.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:19 AM on August 10, 2012

What have I got in my pocket?
posted by cthuljew at 6:27 AM on August 10, 2012

That was fantastic. Thanks for posting it.

I can't help but think of the Zen riddle favoured by Grant Morrison about the goose and the bottle, though.
posted by Shepherd at 7:16 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a little post-it note on my monitor that says "be more like Borges". This guy seems to be on the right track.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:24 AM on August 10, 2012

I've been seeking more fiction just like this. Thank you, Misteraitch.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:31 AM on August 10, 2012

bizarre yet compulsively readable set of interlocking fever dreams.

Yeah, by the end of the story, I was going to ask the author to please stop the narrative, as I was getting dizzy. A story within a story within a story, each with asides on the culture of their respective environments.
posted by zabuni at 8:28 AM on August 10, 2012

If anything, this story reminds me of "The Sect of the Phoenix". I'm not sure why. Maybe because it seems like it's an allegory, but I can't tell what for.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2012

For those wondering whether or not Ajvaz is an author for them, I think Jonathan Bolton offers a very apt characterization of his writing (quoted from the first link in the ‘more inside’ section above):
Indeed, Ajvaz is strange sort of storyteller, who often seems to value concepts more than characters. We might say more accurately that he is a fabulous second-order fabulist—which is another way of saying that his own characters tell better stories than he does. Ajvaz’s longer works […] are really just concatenations of stories gathered by nameless first-person narrators. This gathering can be somewhat mechanical, and this is Ajvaz’s greatest weakness: his characters are at their worst, their most artificial, when they are doing something or going somewhere. When a Czech professor of aesthetics chases a jewel thief across the roofs of Paris, there is something workmanlike about the writing; it is only when he catches her, and she tells him why she stole his wife’s necklace, that the story—now her story—comes alive again. Ajvaz’s characters are at their best when they are telling stories, or listening to them […] In fact, many of them seem to switch on, like carnival automatons, when the narrator enters the room, and to switch off again as soon as he leaves. […] Ajvaz seems uninterested in motivations and psychological realism; unlike most of us, his characters exist primarily to tell their stories.
But oh, what stories! Imagine an underground cathedral lit solely by luminous fish swimming in glass statues. Imagine wasps that buzz behind your bathroom mirror and sting you while you’re shaving. Imagine a species of white ants that scare off predators by condensing into the statue of a tiger, whose eyes turn green and emit teardrops, which alone can cure an unfortunate sickness that keeps its victims asleep most of the time, such that their brief moments of wakefulness begin to seem like dreams, or nightmares. Imagine an afterlife whose inhabitants argue about whether they are in heaven or in hell; imagine that the doodles in your tenth-grade math notes had infuriated the queen of a distant land, whose top spy lures you into her clutches with a floating puppet theater. Ajvaz shakes ideas like these out of his sleeve, several to a page, extravagantly and effortlessly, with the generosity of a genuinely abundant imagination.
posted by misteraitch at 1:26 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Really enjoyed "Riddles" and looking forward to reading more from Ajvaz now - thank you for posting this!
posted by jessypie at 5:36 PM on August 10, 2012

I caught sight of a big shark disappearing into Zelezna Street; it moved through the snow by alternately flexing and extending its body like a caterpillar.
posted by JHarris at 8:41 AM on August 12, 2012

Something about "Riddles" gives me a slight "Master and Margarita" frisson... in other words, I'm feeling very intrigued. I just got "The Golden Age" since it's available in a digital edition, and may order "The Other City." Thanks for the post!
posted by taz at 5:03 AM on August 17, 2012

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