If you have read and enjoyed any of China Miéville’s fiction then you’re in for another treat, and if new to his work expect to be astonished at his prodigious imagination and awed by his literary talent.
There are two timescales at work in this 200-page novella by China Miéville (Picador), both set in Nazi-occupied Europe. In one, it is 1941 and an US American invents an occult device that taps into and channels the synergy of surrealists like André Breton.
Something goes wrong and the S-Bomb that has been invented explodes with consequences unparalleled in the history of warfare. Jump into counterfactual history and fast-forward to 1950: Paris is still under Nazi rule, World War II is not over, and resistance groups are struggling to survive.
This is no ordinary guerrilla war. The S-Bomb has brought to life the creations of surrealist art work and the weird creations of Magritte, Max Ernst and Tristan Tzara stalks the streets of the French capital.
Sharks with hollow-backed seats swim in the Seine, quasi-robotic elephants roam free, a truncated Eiffel Tower floats in the sky, ‘a man in a coat watches eyelessly from a chessboard head’ (all carefully referenced works of surrealist art).
One of them, a sentient version of a photo-collage created by Breton and others, is the exquisite corpse and becomes an ally of the story’s hero and heroine.
Other ‘manifs’ (manifestations) are being used by the Germans, including a terrifying marble man that stamps destructively through the urban landscape, a personification of Nazi ideology that seems indestructible. No spoilers here but suffice to say that the narrative builds to an almighty climax.
Philip K. Dick’s alternative history of World War II, “The man in the high castle”, has the Japanese occupying the western USA and Len Deighton’s SS-GB (published sixteen years after K. Dick in 1978), with an adaptation currently showing on BBC television, has the Germans occupying Britain.
In this sense, Miéville’s Nazi-run Paris of the 1950s completes a triptych but in every other way it is completely original. As a work of literature it is sui generis, one that imagines a post-World War II future while provoking questions in a playful spirit about present times.
The politics of the surrealists were revolutionary, with family resemblances to libertarian socialist ideas. They thought art should be a form of insurgency, subverting the cultural status quo, and Miéville gets that.
The exquisite corpse -a copy forms the front cover illustration for “The last days of new Paris”- has a human head but its body is a gallimaufry of non-human parts.
It was a collaborative creation born of a game the surrealists played, with each person contributing something without knowing what has previously been given. There is no one directing the show but by working together something very special emerges.
This novella does not have the sustained brilliance of the author’s masterpieces, “Embassytown” and “The city and the city”, but that is because it is trying something different and this is the hallmark of Miéville’s writing. Later this year, marking the centenary of a historic event, his newest book will be published –“October: The story of the Russian Revolution”– and no doubt that will also be something very different. Some things are worth waiting for.