China Miéville is a British writer who describes his work as “weird fiction”. His latest novella pays homage to the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, itself a veritable incubator of weird.
Historians often frame the multi-disciplinarian Surrealist movement as a reaction to World War I and an attempt to forge an alternative to the predominant Cartesian, linear, logical mode of thought espoused by Western culture.
The old way of thinking, proponents of Surrealism argued, had lost its legitimacy, citing as evidence the unprecedented carnage of WWI as the inevitable expression and conclusion of a broken system.
But other elements were at play. European art had already been thrown into flux a generation earlier with the advent of the Impressionist movement. That Impressionism followed the invention and spread of photography is no coincidence. Visual artists, partially relieved of the duty of creating strictly realistic depictions, refined techniques that filtered reality through more ambiguous lenses.
This in turn contributed to the general fin-de-siècle reinvigoration of the arts (which included the newly invented medium of film), and increasingly the artist’s role became not merely to depict but to actively question reality and make that interrogation part of the viewers’ experience.
The Dada movement was a natural extension of this, one of its main techniques relying on decontextualising everyday objects. A urinal, a bicycle wheel, a bottle-drying rack – anything was appropriated and isolated, the goal being to see and show objects in a new light.
Surrealism grew out of Dadaism, but rather than simply removing an object from its original context the Surrealist method often combined disparate objects to create something both recognisable and novel.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the self-conscious seriousness of its goals, Surrealism often contains an undercurrent of humour and playfulness.
Some historians maintain that Surrealism fizzled out during World War II when many artists and writers fled Nazi-occupied Paris (the setting for much of this novella), but, in fact, Surrealism is deeply embedded in popular culture even today.
Eighty years ago the flamboyant artist Salvador Dali, perhaps Surrealism’s most stylistically recognisable and best known proponent, created a piece of work that Piko-Taro could easily narrate as “I have a phone / I have a lobster / Uh! Lobster-phone”. The Japanese comedian’s PPAP (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen), with its layers of embedded symbolism and humour, would have been instantly recognisable to the Surrealists.
Though Dali – or “you know who” as Miéville calls him in The Last Days Of New Paris – might be Surrealism’s poster boy, the writer and poet Andre Breton is generally credited as being the father of Surrealism. He formalised the goal of the movement as seeking to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality”.
Breton studied medicine and psychiatry and this link between dream and reality was directly inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who posited that the seemingly illogical associations and juxta-positions of images inherent in dreams offer a window into the subconscious workings of the mind.
Ironically, Freud saw Surrealism’s deliberate and conscious choice of images revealed by the subconscious as a form of self-censorship and claimed the Surrealists were sabotaging their goals by censoring themselves (albeit by a novel set of parameters), ultimately leading to artwork that was a forceful manifestation of the ego, the very thing the movement and its art sought to subvert.
Miéville creates an alternative history where the Parisian Surrealists under Nazi occupation integrate the resistance movement (many joined the resistance in real life, including the writer Samuel Beckett) and detonate an “S-Blast” which brings their surreal creations to life. In their struggle against the Nazis, they attempt to harness these manifestations, or “manifs” as Miéville calls them. (One of the multiple meanings of the word in French is “protest” – surreal writing traditionally embraces ambiguous words.)
But the Nazis make their own unholy covenant, leading to demons and hideous monsters of all sorts, claiming the different levels of hell as their natural abode, roaming the ruined streets of Paris.
The city is besieged not so much by these fantasy characters but by those intent on keeping them confined to the city. Anyone caught within dystopian Paris’s city limits, including the protagonist Thibaut, is essentially stranded there. Thibaut joins forces with an American woman named Sam, who may or may not be a journalist.
While the story is wild and intensely imaged, the plot is quite simple and familiar: boy meets girl and together they try to save the world.
Miéville’s monsters and manifs are largely inspired by the artwork of the artists of the time and a semi-fictional glossary at the end of the book helps to further contextualise them.
Throughout this novella the writing is high-octane – something akin to a saucepan of popcorn on full heat, with the kernels of each sentence exploding into unexpected images in a frenetic and relentless assault.
An exciting, energetic, and sometimes exhausting read that credits and honours Surrealism.
The Last Days Of New Paris
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Picador, fiction