Michal Ajvaz

The Other City

2009 | Dalkey Archive Press

I entered one of the narrow aisles. For a while I proceeded in darkness, which was illuminated here and there by the glow of putrefying books. I switched on my torch and let the beam wander over the bookshelves. In the damp air the pages of the books curled, swelled, frayed and turned to pulp, expanding and forcing the bindings outwards, tearing them and squeezing out through the holes. Covers were falling apart and leaves prolapsed from them, lolling out of the books like tired tongues, falling on the ground and mixing with leaves from other books, putrefying and forming a soaring pile of oozing, phosphorescent, malodorous compost, through which I had to force my way waist-deep at times. The wooden shelves on which the books stood cracked and twisted. In the putrefying insides of the books, in dark crannies between the leaves, seeds of plants became fixed and sprouted in the damp darkness, sinking their roots into the paper and thrusting their shoots up to the edge of the book where their agile heads broke their way out, sometimes turning into lianas which hung in elaborate strings around the library and dripped sticky sap, sometimes becoming runners that crept along the shelves, forcing their way into other books, squeezing between the closed pages and fighting their way to the very center to take root there. On some of the stalks growing from inside the books, heavy, bland-tasting fruit was ripening. What was most nauseating in these stuffy and fetid surroundings was not the realization that a strange accidental calamity was occurring with rampant nature devouring the fruits of the human spirit; what gave rise to increasing anxiety was rather the fact that the dreamlike transformation of books into dangerous and unemotional vegetation laid bare the malignant disease secretly festering in every book and in every sign created by humans. I read somewhere that books treat solely of other books and that signs likewise refer to other signs; that a book has nothing to do with reality, but instead reality itself is a book since it is created by language. What was depressing about that doctrine was that it allowed reality to be hidden by our signs. The realization that wafted from the decaying library was far more somber, however: what I could see here was that books and signs remain rooted in reality and governed by its unknown currents, that our signifying and communicating is embedded in being, which signifies itself, its secret rhythms, and that original signification, that original dull glow of being keeps alive our meanings while at the same time threatening to swallow them again and dissolve them in itself. In the library turned jungle I came to the realization that the letters in those broken books and in a new book on a bookshop counter are simply specks like others with which burgeoning life adorns the surface of existence and with which it merely expresses its monotonous and unintelligible whisper.

In that humid world of collapsing shapes lived various creatures: as I leafed through books I would come across flat mollusks that slid between the pages and that imitated them so well that it was very hard to tell them apart; I usually only discovered the creature when what I thought was a page suddenly curled up at the touch of my fingers and then wriggled off into the darkness: there were times when an apparent book entirely dispersed, being in reality merely a colony of the mollusks stuck together. There seemed to be more and more of the creatures, but in actual fact I was learning to recognize their mimicry which had rendered the creatures invisible to me at first. Their camouflage was often almost perfect, and nature displayed its most brilliant achievement on the bodies of the large newts: the black blemishes on their white skin looked just like letters of the alphabet, so that when a newt was lying on a pile of pages it was invisible. The letters were usually grouped in meaningless combinations, but sometimes by chance there emerged an intelligible word or even part of a sentence laden with some sort of meaning: I read on the skin of newts the words “lascivious,” “blenched,” “arbitration,” and on the tail of one creature I made out the phrase “crystal cursed queen.”

This rampant life of the library – the rotting and twisting of shelves, the swelling of books, the aggressive burgeoning of plants, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the pervasion of creatures – meant that the bookcases expanded and became bloated with the constant turmoil; the aisles between them became narrower; I was obliged to squeeze through gulches and cut myself a path through overgrown books with the machete. Sometimes the bookshelves on either side would coalesce, the burgeoning books and the stalks that grew out of them intertwining to form solid bridges that resisted even machete blows; that meant I was forced to crawl through long, narrow tunnels beneath the fused bookshelves: on one occasion in the tunnel the light of the torch fell on the hideous snarling face of a creature as it emerged from the swamp just ahead of me; the beast gave out a piercing shriek and snapped at my face. On another occasion some creature was passing down the tunnel in the same direction as I, and was obviously in a great hurry. I could hear behind me impatient snuffling and grunting and the beast bit me in the heel to hurry me along; finally it started to crawl over me and the weight of it pushed me into the mire, while the animal went on grumbling in annoyance.

Translated by Gerald Turner. Available for reading at Google Books.