I have a poster of René Magritte’s painting Empire of Light on my study wall. I have my back to it as I write. The poster came from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, and is slightly tattered around the edges after a long journey home, more years ago than I care to count. I do not understand the painting. The sky is daytime blue with gentle, puffy clouds, while the streetscape is evening dark, the only light coming from a few high windows and a street lamp. I do not understand it, but I love it. I have often imagined loitering under the yellow glow of the lamp and looking up at the sun.
Imagine my joy when the character Thibaut, a lone Surrealist fighter, rests under this very lamp as he attempts to escape Paris and the Nazis.
No, that doesn’t make much sense either, but we are in the world of China Mièville so it is best to let go of preconceptions and allow his writing to perform its (weird) magic.
Since writing the blog ‘Fine China’ recently, I discovered the prolific China Mièville has released another novella, The Last Days of New Paris (2016). I grabbed a copy, still under the spell of This Census-Taker. Here, in this new work, the Nazis are undefeated in 1950 and Paris is awash with manifs, the demonstrations or manifestations of surrealist art, which the Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-Nazis-on-steroids, are attempting to control, and Thibaut in a small way, can.
It is rollercoaster from the first page, as a velo (half bicycle, half woman – a kind of mechanical centaur) screams onto the scene. The top half of the Eiffel Tower hovers in the air, the bottom half gone; Exquisite Corpses roam free, and these are not the bodies of dead people.
Handy endnotes give the reader a little more history around the artists and the surrealist movement and the art that has come to life. The notes are not altogether accessible – as there are no indications in the text to show when to turn to the back. I had to wait for some nagging worry that I hadn’t quite grasped the current manif, and ta-da, an explanation could be found.
The whole book is a learning experience. My knowledge of surrealist art, my Empire of Light poster notwithstanding, is basically Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and one of my favourite sayings that I trot out on a regular basis, which André Breton had written on a sandwich board that he wore at the Festival of Dada in Paris, in 1920, thought the quote itself is attributed to Francis Picabia.
‘In order for you to like something it is necessary for you to have seen and understood it a long time ago, you bunch of idiots.’
Haven’t we all felt like that at times?
Turns out, the surrealist movement was far more extensive, and even stranger than I’d realised. And still is: see for example in Australia the Beinart Gallery.
Mièville’s appreciation of surrealism is manifest throughout the novella. And to top off all the imaginative mayhem, and the heart-stopping suspense, Mièville makes good use of the fact that Hitler was a mediocre, at best, artist.
How many books does the world need about defeating Hitler? I don’t think we’ve reached the limit.
The image is a 2009 photograph of a mural in Son Servera close to Calle de la Cabrera, somewhat resembling paintings of Salvador Dali.