Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris
From The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville:
Open quote 

The other Messerschmitt veers toward the Seine. The roofs shake again, this time from below. Something comes up from inside Paris. A pale tree-wide tendril, shaggy with bright foliage. It rises. Clutches of buds or fruit the size of human heads quiver. It blooms vastly above the skyline. The German pilot flies straight at the vivid flowers, as if smitten, plant-drunk. He plunges for the vegetation. It spreads trembling leaves. The great vine whips up one last house-height and takes the plane in its coils. It yanks it down below the roofs, into the streets, out of sight. There is no explosion. The snagged aircraft is just gone, into the deeps of the city."

That description of a WWII aerial battle is beautifully written. But in China Miéville's "The Last Days of New Paris," the language isn't figurative. It's literal.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

This is the oddest book I've read in a long time. It has Nazis, resistance fighters, Surrealist artists, living artwork monsters, occult magicians, demons, even a spy from hell, literally — all mixed up on the streets of a Paris in an alternate universe, one where WWII never ended.

If you are a student of Surrealism, this book is a must read. Look at the cover. See that image of the Eiffel Tower where only the top half is visible? That's not fog hiding the lower half. In "Paris and the Surrealists," George Melly says "it was proposed that 'only the top half be left." How the Surrealists imagined it, is literally how it is in China Miéville's new Paris.

Are you familiar with the Surrealist game of "exquisite corpse"? Or the specific example by Breton, Lamba and Tanguy? Miéville describes it as an old man made of "a clamping bench on engine parts on patient human feet...In his beard, a steam train the size of a cudgel, its chimney venting smoke into the bristles." That exquisite corpse and more come to life, manifested in reality, and participate in the battle for new Paris. These "manifs" are good to have on your side.

But suppose you are not a student of Surrealism. Then this novel might read like an LSD trip through a Paris that never was. In this alternate reality, the Nazis are still occupying Paris in 1950. Josef Mengele (the notorious doctor) and Adolf Hitler (the young mediocre artist) make cameos. There is an occult magician (based on a historical one) who unleashes the forces of hell with something called an S-Blast. They are opposed by an army of Surrealist artists and their artwork. It's a warped war story, a spy story, a thriller, unlike any you've ever read. I give it only a C+ because of its frequent references to French artists and writers and Parisian streets and landmarks that I am not familiar with, making it a difficult read, but I still think it deserves to be read, if only to learn more about the Surrealism movement. If they make a movie version, I'll buy a ticket. It's likely to become a cult classic, to be enjoyed high.

"The Last Days of New Paris" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.

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