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Michal Ajvaz: An annotated bibliography
(of sorts, and with a brief commentary)

by G.S. Evans

The following is a modest attempt at an “annotated” English-language bibliography of the works of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, which also links to texts that have been translated into English and are online. The “annotated” portion is best put in quotes since, for the most part, the annotations are not summaries or commentaries by me – as would be the case in a proper annotated bibliography -- but are culled from the descriptions of the respective books from their publishers (in most cases, translated into English by me) or from the website of the author’s foreign-rights literary agent, Dana Blatná. Though imperfect, this is the readiest way I could think of to show the English-speaking world the breadth of Ajvaz’s work – especially his theoretical works, which are almost wholly untranslated into English (it should also be noted that my translations here are not intended to be definitive, especially in regards to the terminology of some of his theoretical works).

Indeed, given this theoretical side of Ajvaz’s work and the way it is intertwined with his fictional work, the reader won’t wonder that we here at The Cafe Irreal, given our own theoretical bent, are intrigued by this author. Nonetheless, and in spite of the fact that in his fiction he always writes in a fantastic mode (and that three of fictional works have been published in our journal), he only occasionally writes in an irreal mode. There is often present in Ajvaz's work a distinct "other" reality that takes a rather consistent, if amorphous, metaphysical form; it is, indeed, often manifested by way of script and texts (and in this way his work much more resembles the formal, metaphysical side of Jorge Luis Borges' work than it does the work of Franz Kafka, tempting though it might be to equate Ajvaz -- a life long resident of Prague who often situates his work in that city -- with Kafka). In The Golden Age, for example, the Book’s inserted stories within inserted stories create a “life of the page” that becomes a world onto itself, and this world becomes so powerful that it takes over the narration of the novel that we ourselves are reading; in The Other City the letters in a book that the protagonist found in a used bookstore, which are written in an unknown language by an unknown author, are at times luminous and even animated and lead the protagonist to a very real, and fantastic, “other” version of Prague, with its own religion, university, stores, etc. Brilliantly though this other reality is presented in his work (especially in The Other City), it still points to a certain internal consistency in the physics of the fictional world that he has created (i.e., there is an other world partially hidden from ours with its own -- albeit from our point of view, very strange -- way of doing things) that differentiates it from what we are calling the Irreal in which, as we put it in "What is Irrealism?”: “not only is the physics underlying the story impossible, as it is in these other [fantastic] genres, but it is also fundamentally and essentially unpredictable (in that it is not based on any traditional or scientific conception of physics) and unexplained.”

Ajvaz’s protagonists, on the other hand, spend a considerable amount of time explaining, or trying to explain, or at least trying to ascertain, the nature of the physics that they are experiencing. Indeed, Ajvaz himself, a researcher at Prague's Center for Theoretical Studies, has put forth considerable effort in his theoretical works on elaborating a vision of this other reality. This is not to suggest that, in his theoretical writings, he is trying to say that there are actual life and death struggles between humans and sharks occurring on Prague rooftops such as occur in his novel The Other City. In his fictional work, rather, it seems as though he is working hard to show us that what we usually see (e.g., the “normal,” everyday Prague) is something of a façade, and that there is a very different reality or realities bubbling up underneath it, and that in his theoretical works he is striving to understand these other realities. And if this might be rather Platonic in form, it isn’t in substance as he seems comfortable with the idea that language itself is that other reality, and thus that language truly has a life of its own. [Footnote] But this is a point that I hope to elaborate on (if indeed it is valid) after I’ve read more of his theoretical work.

Now to the annotated bibliography, such as it is:

Vražda v hotelu Intercontinental (Murder in the Intercontinental Hotel -- poetry collection) 1989

This volume contains the author’s poetry debut. Like the collection of short stories that followed it two years later (Return of the Old Komodo Dragon -- see immediately below), the fundamental structural principle is that the logically real space of Prague is disrupted by fantastic ideas that, somewhat surprisingly, do not disrupt the illusion of reality. 

Návrat starého varana (Return of the Old Komodo Dragon -- short story collection) 1991
Stories from collection published in English translation:
Back Brain Recluse (#23, 1997): “The Concert”
Back Brain Recluse (#23, 1997): “The Past
The Weird: A Compendium of
Strange and Dark Stories (Tor 2012): “The End of the Garden
Britské listy : “Riddles
The Cafe Irreal (#53, 2015) : “The Elevator
The Cafe Irreal (#53, 2015) : “Chapters

Druhé město (The Other City -- novel) 1993
Published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press 2008

“In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible, “other Prague,” overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads.” (Liner notes from Dalkey Archive Press edition)

Znak a bytí (The Sign and Being -- essay) 1994

In this study the author reflects on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida.

Tiché labyrinty (Quiet labyrinths – photo/essay) 1996

The forest and the person. The forest seen through the lens of photographer Petr Hruška and the relationship of the forest and the person as sensed by Michal Ajvaz. One page of poetic and philosophical text by Ajvaz, the opposite page a close-up photograph of the the forest by Hruška.

Tajemství knihy (The Mystery of a Book -- essays) 1997
Excerpt published in English translation: irreal (re)views (2013) "An essay about that which isn't a pipe"

A collection of non-fictional texts, the majority of which were published in the Czech literary weekly Literární noviny.

Tyrkysový orel (The Turquoise Eagle – pair of short novels) 1997

This volume contains the short novels Bílí mravenci (White Ants) and Zénonovy paradoxy (Zeno’s Paradoxes). In both, the narrator encounters people who tell him life stories beyond the bounds of our experience. In White Ants , indecipherable motifs, such as disturbing sounds, the melody of an unknown musical instrument, an ancient script or a strange type of ant all become sources of anxiety. In Zeno´s Paradoxes, life is reflected as a confusion of oppressive games. A student of philosophy here recounts a hallucinatory story about a city located in the middle of the ocean, populated by gods and demons.

Zlatý věk (The Golden Age – novel) 2001
Published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press 2010

The work can be considered as an imaginary travelogue or as a combination of cultural and ethnological fiction. This time the story is not set in the shadowy corners of magical Prague; here the author invites us on a journey to an island where a sense of solidarity has evolved which is alien to the life of our European or European-American rational and pragmatic civilization. It is a totally open solidarity, based on principles of chaos and destruction of all signs of totalitarianism in our language and thought. 

Světelný prales (The Luminous Forest -- essay) 2003

The book concerns itself with various aspects of seeing. It also discusses Husserl’s theory of signs and Kant’s concept of the schema from the point of view of visual experience.

Sny gramatik, záře písmen: Setkání s Jorgem Luisem Borgesem (The Dreams of grammars, the gleamings of letters: An encounter with Jorge Luis Borges -- essay) 2003

Ajvaz’s reflections on the works of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. The author characterizes the book as follows: “It is a report about a journey, about the adventure of a meeting with Borges’ work, a narration about the thoughts which are born in a conversation with Borges as answers to the questions which Borges’ writings put before me – answers which immediately gave rise to further questions, calling for new answers.”

Prázdné ulice (Empty Streets -- novel) 2004
Excerpt published in English translation: The Cafe Irreal (#26, 2008) "Two Compositions

The story is set in Prague in 1999. In a rubbish heap on the edge of the city the narrator finds an object whose function is unknown to him. It might be a tool, an emblem, a statue, even a letter from a strange alphabet. It transpires that the object is connected somehow with the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. The narrator searches for the girl while trying to work out the meaning of the unknown object; he feels sure that the object holds the key to the girl's disappearance. His quest takes him to various places, including coffee bars, porter's offices, stations and luxury villas of the nouveaux rich. He digs up several clues and hears talk which connects the object with the girl. The stories transport the reader to New York, an unnamed small town in France, the mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, Greek islands in the Aegean, South America and Afghanistan. But still the clues do not add up to a meaningful whole ...

Padesát pět měst (Fifty-five cities) 2006
Published in English translation (excerpt): The Cafe Irreal (#31, 2009)The City and Heaven

A catalog of the localities that Marco Polo recounted to Kublai Khan, drawn up in honor of Italo Calvino. The author here reconstructs Calvino's Invisible Cities and brings to them an organized combinatorics whose result is 11 sections with five short subsections in the newly imagined city.

Příběh znaků a prázdna (A story of signs and the void -- essays) 2006

A book of essays about Italo Calvino, Witold Gombrowicz, Henri Michaux, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others. All of the essays revolve around a single theme and are linked by the text, which makes a story from them, and whose plot is a journey to the realm of signs and the void.

Znak, sebevědomí a čas: Dvě studie o Derridově filosofii (The sign, self-assurance and time: Two studies of Derrida’s philosophy) 2007

The first part of the book contains a new edition of the previously published study, The Sign and Being (1994); the second part a previously unpublished study examining Derrida’s critique of Husserl’s concept of temporality.

Snování: Rok dopisů o snech (Spinning: A year of correspondence on the subject of dreams -- coauthor Ivan Havel) 2008

In the course of a year Ajvaz and the scientist and philosopher Ivan Havel (the brother of playwright and former president Vaclav Havel) exchange letters in which they share their dreams and thoughts about their dreams, and in which they investigate whether they can find some pattern to the dreams, without however relying on psychoanalytical or other theories of the dream.

Cesta na jih (Journey to the South -- novel) 2008
Excerpt in English

In a small village on the southern coast of Crete, the narrator meets a young man who tells the story of a journey which took him from Prague all the way to the Libyan sea. It is a voyage to uncover the truth behind the mysterious deaths of two brothers, in which it is necessary to work out many traces, clues and rebuses and in which many different stories become interconnected, taking the reader to even more distant locales such as Moscow, Boston and Mexico City.

Sindibádův dům (Sinbad’s House – coauthor, Ivan Havel) 2010

A correspondence between the coauthors about episodic situations and also a little bit about scenes, moments, memories, beginnings, middles and ends, coastal reefs, waves and geysers, piles, dumps, pataphysics and other devices.

Lucemburská zahrada (Luxembourg Gardens – novel) 2011
Excerpt in English

Luxembourg Gardens describes a sequence of events experienced by a Parisian secondary-school teacher during the summer holidays. In an absent-minded moment he hits the wrong key on his computer keyboard and misspells a single word; as a result, he experiences both the happiest and most terrible period of his life. The action of the novel is set in Paris, Nice, Nantes, New York State, Moscow, the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Taormina in Sicily, and Lara, a town of the author’s invention.

Cesta k pramenům smyslu: Genetická fenomenologie Edmunda Husserla (A Journey to the Sources of Meaning: The genetic phenomenology of Edmund Husserl – essay) 2012

The author surveys Husserl’s conception of genetic phenomenology, attempting to show the principle of genesis, paradoxes (which are linked with genetic issues in the framework of phenomenology) and the place of genetic research in phenomenological philosophy: genetic analysis isn’t only important to the field of phenomenology, it shows itself to be indispensable for a full determination of meaning in all other areas. As a guide, the author traces the genesis of the subject-predicate relationship.

[Sources: Bibliography adapted from that provided on the Czech Literature Portal; notes regarding particular books retrieved (and translated from) the website of the Czech book distributor Kosmas or retrieved from the website of Ajvaz’s international literary agent, Dana Blatná.


[Footnote] Though in my limited readings of Ajvaz and about Ajvaz, I haven’t encountered a discussion of this “Platonic” angle, it was suggested to me in my recent reading of Apuleius’ The Transformation of Lucius Apuleius or The Golden Ass, especially in rather Ajvazian sounding passages such as the following:

As soon as darkness had dispersed and the rising sun brought daylight, I emerged from sleep and bed. Anxious as ever to investigate, with all my excessive eagerness, the rare and marvellous, and knowing that there I was in the heart of Thessaly, the home of those magic arts whose powerful spells are praised throughout the world, and remembering that my dear friend Aristomenes’ tale was set in this very city, I was possessed with desire and impatience, and set out to examine everything carefully.  Nothing I saw in that city seemed to me to be what it was, but everything, I thought, had been transformed by some dreadful incantation; the rocks I came across were petrified human beings, the birds I heard were people with feathers, the trees round the city walls were the same with leaves, and the water in the fountains had flowed from human veins; soon the statues and images would start to walk, and the walls to talk, and the oxen and other cattle to prophesy, and an oracle would speak from the very sky, out of the face of the sun.  (Book II: 1-3 Aunt Byrrhena , tr. A. S. Kline)

In such passages the narrator’s (i.e. Lucius’s) focus on appearances and how they change is shared by the narrators/protagonists of Ajvaz’s work, as is the narrator’s desire to get to the bottom of things, i.e. to understand the forms that lurk behind the shadows. An interesting similarity, even if Ajvaz’s proposed forms have little to do with Plato’s.

And, indeed, on a more general, literary level there are striking similarities between Ajvaz’s work and the more literary Greek and Roman novels: the fact that the narrator’s essential characteristic is a familiaris curiositas (literally a “habitual curiosity,” but really a curiosity verging over into “meddlesomeness” – see “Curiositas and the Platonism of Apuleius' Golden Ass” by Joseph G. DeFilippo), the obvious life and lifestyle similarities between the narrator/protagonist and the author of the work, the picaresque and fantastic nature of the tales told and the fact that the narrative is heavily reliant upon there being stories within stories. Ajvaz himself has mentioned the key influence of Raymond Roussel on him, and certainly Roussel utilizes the story within a story method in a way that was as unusual for an author of his time as it is for an author of our time (though Ajvaz, in The Golden Age, takes it to an almost avant-garde extreme), but it is hard to see how Ajvaz isn’t intentionally tapping into a far more ancient lineage.

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