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EMPTY STREETS by Michal Ajvaz


by Michal Ajvaz ; translated by Andrew Oakland

Pub Date: March 25th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-56478-700-2
Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Ajvaz (Golden Age, 2010, etc.) braids together various histories, stories, motivations, and losses while an unnamed narrator weaves through the streets of Prague.

The story truly begins with a surrealist movement in Prague back in the 1970s, but the narrator is first introduced struggling to write a novella in 1999. While taking a walk to cure his writer’s block, he steps into a web of mystery when his foot is pierced by a strange object he calls a double trident. For the rest of the day, the narrator repeatedly encounters symbols in the same shape, and then he gets a phone call from Jakub Jonás, a former literary critic whose daughter, Viola Jonásová, has been missing for two years. At Jonás’ behest and to satiate his own curiosity, the narrator spends the next eight days searching for Viola. He snakes through the city, “watchful for any opportunity, any encounter with a person unknown, any snatch of conversation overheard in the streetcar, any machine of unknown purpose, any broken-off piece of something at a dump” that might lead him to her. Ajvaz’s previous work on philosophy and his in-depth study of Jorge Luis Borges shine through. Each character bearing a relationship with the double trident has an intricate philosophy on various art forms and their roles within his or her method of whimsy. Often characters speak for entire chapters as the narrator listens, parsing the monologues for clues about the missing girl. In this convoluted novel are mosaics of characters and histories; silence and sound; art and torture. By the end of Part I, it’s hard to discern exactly what is myth and what is reality. However, the work is meticulously crafted. No tension is lost in the tangential rants of fleeting characters. As easy as it is to read through with rapt attention, this novel would definitely benefit from rereadings and re-examinations.

A lot of patience is necessary to make sense of this winding narrative, but it's an eventful road.