The Last Days of New Paris
Time is a slippery thing in China Miéville’s writing. Reality, too. Whether he’s cracking open the concept of language (Embassytown) or layering dimensions and urban histories on top of and through each other like so many strands of literary string theory (The City & The City), Miéville plays with the nature of consciousness in a way that few other writers of the fantastic manage these days.
So in The Last Days of New Paris, a slim novella with a tastefully and deceptively mainstream cover, it stands to reason that Miéville had different things in mind than the kind of sepia-tinted war-time romances crowding bookstore shelves of late. In this story, we are given war-time Paris in all its terribly fraught glory of occupation and resistance. But instead of a city caught in the expected binary fault-line where Lost Generation ennui arises to combat fascist domination, Miéville has expanded the playing field into other worlds.
His protagonist, Thibaut, is a young French fighter hiding out in a city fractured by more than combat. It’s 1950 and the Second World War is still grinding on. Thibaut, “as stranded in impossible Paris as everyone else,” fights not for the Free French or the collaborators, but the “Main à Plume”, a Surrealist resistance band that has put its theories of art into military practice. But his position as a fighter in Miéville’s imagining is about as squirrelly and difficult to grasp as the nature of the city itself. He’s no sharpshooter, no good at close-in combat, either.
Rather, Thibaut has a good sense for the junctures between art and the world. His finely honed taste makes him the ideal protagonist for Miéville, a sharp-eyed connoisseur who can live inside the fractured world of the new Paris and not be unnerved when he sees that “under one lamppost, it is night” (a nod to Magritte’s Empire of Light series).
Years before, an eruption referred to obliquely as “the S-blast” tore apart the fabric of reality. In its wake flowed a slew of freakish entities. Some are frightful hellspawn, “invaders from below”, twisted beasts out of some lower-grade comic book about occult Nazi experiments. The others, the ones Miéville and Thibaut are focused on, are the manifestations (“manifs”, in the book’s terminology) of the pre-war Surrealist masters at whose feat Thibaut studied:
They were convulsively beautiful, and they were arrived. The poets and artists and philosophers, resistance activists, secret scouts and troublemakers, had become, as they must, soldiers.
Any mystery about what Miéville is attempting here is wiped away in the book’s first pages. There, a detachment of German soldiers face down a manif, the Velo, which tears through the city and their lines like a centaur of dream combat hurled out at the Nazis by the normally powerless salon plotters and schemers. It’s a vision of art made real, conjured from the 1941 work I am an Amateur of Velocipedes, by Leonora Carrington, a student of Surrealism high priest Max Ernst. But instead of turning these manifestations into pretty or awe-inducing pictures to be oohed and ahhed over, Miéville uses them as visualizations of the artists’ overtly political intent.
This point of view gives the book an initial power that judders and kicks inside the loopy and ghostly poetry of Miéville’s dancing, evocative prose. In his imagining, art isn’t something to hang in a museum. Surrealism isn’t a poster of Dali clocks to adorn a stoner’s dorm room. It is politics. It is freedom. Like Woody Guthrie’s guitar of old, these paintings and sculptures kill fascists.
The method of combat is fuzzy, of course. One can’t imagine that surrealist art works are the sort of things that follow directions well. But fortunately for Thibaut and a mysterious secret agent woman who attaches herself to him later in the book, the manifs—especially the fearsome beast manifested from Andre Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, and Yves Tanguy’s 1938 Exquisite Corpse, a reproduction of which opens the book—can be directed. Also fortunately, they hate fascists with as much passion as they hate bad art, not to mention all of those demons that erupted into Paris during the S-Blast.
The weakness of The Last Days of New Paris becomes more apparent the more Miéville digs into the demon-battling side of things. There is so much wonder and terror to be found in his descriptions of this new, art-shattered world that doesn’t pretend a Surrealist world would make for jolly surroundings; witness this scene: “At dawn a giant shark mouth appears at the horizon smiling like a stupid angel and chewing silently on the sky.” A couple mornings of that would send even a few ardent Surrealist cadres to the sanitarium.
By stitching that narrative together with a backstory about Nazis, witches, and Satanists creating the S-Blast by trying to conjure up beasts from below, Miéville doesn’t just nod at a pulp storyline, he buys fully into it. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with a Mike Mignola-style plot about battling Nazis and potentially world-ending satanic beasts that pulls Aleister Crowley acolytes and Thomas Pynchon nods (“his imaginings of the screamings across the sky”) into its orbit. However, the more Miéville juts the novel into Guillermo del Toro fantastic hellspawn territory, the closer he gets to the pulpy familiar and the further from the unnerving and ironical manifestations of his concept of art as the enemy of dictators and bad taste.
This makes for a novel that doesn’t quite cohere its visions, shorter and yet less taut than some of Miéville’s longer pieces. Still, The Last Days of Paris burns with a cool fire, and it is filled with moments like this one:
Sam takes out two with witch-blasts, Thibaut a third with an ill-aimed burst of bullets. His heart shakes him. The manif ends another attack with a Surrealist assassination: the man at whom it stares sits suddenly down, undoes his buttons, looks into his body, now a cage filled with angry crows, and is still.
In the right hands, art is dangerous.
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