Wednesday, October 02, 2019

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

In 1933, a group of French Surrealists described various "irrational embellishments" of Paris, in their journal Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. Eighty years later, China Mieville decided to use it as the setting for a short novel.

That's reductive and probably not entirely true...but it's pretty close. Mieville was influenced by a lot more of Surrealism than just that one magazine issue, but it's clear that particular transformation was the seed of the book.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 novella about a city transformed by a Surrealist-powered bomb: we see it mostly in 1950, through the eyes of Thibault, a young Surrealist/partisan, with shorter interspersed chapters of the 1941 events leading up to the blast. This Paris has been invaded three times: by the Nazis, who are still around (even, apparently, outside the city, where WWII seems to be still chugging along in 1950); by the Nazi's demonic allies (about whom we don't learn nearly as much as this reader would have liked); and by the manifestations ("manifs," in the words of the locals) of Surrealism called up by that bomb.

And, yes, the Nazi demons do rather seem to have migrated from a slightly different alternate-WWII book, though they are necessary for parts of the plot. Mieville is as usual not interested in simple dichotomies, so there's no sense of Surrealism vs. Hell here: both are bizarre eruptions that Parisians must deal with, both are problematic, neither are as bad as actual Nazis. (In this Mieville is absolutely correct.)

Mieville does not concentrate on the details of the city: at time, it felt like his characters were racing through nature (a wood, perhaps, or overgrown meadows) and not down the streets of a major city. Perhaps they are; that would be very Surrealist, I suppose. But he very much does not have them ducking into and out of buildings, or climbing staircases to get a better view, or traipsing across rooftops, or using any of the other things one traditionally associates with cities. They are instead running through open ground, as if the vast majority of Paris has been leveled -- which is possible, I suppose, but makes it not particularly Paris.

He does have a lot of Surrealist imagery brought to awful life in his city, and there are more than twenty pages of endnotes (after a book barely 170 pages) to explain where they all came from and to bask in the glow of how clever he is.

Thibault's group, the Main a plume, claims to be both Surrealist and an anti-Nazi partisan force, but they are pretty much all dead by the time Last Days begins, and the various partisan groups in Paris come across more as scattered street gangs or tribes, the violence-oriented sector of the few people left alive in New Paris. (Frankly, I was a little surprised anyone could be alive after nine years in a city both entirely cordoned off from the outside world and overrun by Nazi soldiers, demons, and freakish Surrealist creations. There's no sign any of these people are growing food, for one thing.)

So Thibault runs around, to not much effect, and sees a lot of things that Mieville carefully annotates in the backmatter. He soon runs into Sam, a female American photographer who is obviously more than the disaster tourist she seems to be, though she's not the kind of more Thibault thinks she is. They learn some deep secrets of their world, gather a manif of their own -- it follows Thibault due to a leash made by Nazi manif-control science -- and, in the end, save the world, more or less.

The plot is hurried and consists mostly of running around for what never seems like adequate reasons. The world is potentially big and interesting, but Mieville presents it in staccato images, as if he's trying to fit all of his favorite Surrealist ideas into the shortest possible number of pages. The characters are few to begin with, and even the major ones are cyphers: Thibault is an Everyman as much as he's anything, and he's not much of that.

This is a thin book, even thinner than it looks at first, and the very definition of self-indulgent. It will be of primary interest to huge fans of Mieville or Surrealism, or (preferably) both.

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