The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Picador, 2017, 215 p, including 12 p Afterword and 22 p Notes.

 The Last Days of New Paris cover

This is an (almost) indescribable novella+. A tricky, tricksy story whose unfolding makes all but impossible demands upon the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Sometime in 1941 an S-Blast occurred in France. From then on surrealist visions (here called manifs – manifestations; but one of the Notes hints it may perhaps derive from manifest quiddity) stalk Paris’s streets. The even numbered of the novella’s nine chapters are set in the run-up to the blast, as a man called Jack Parsons seeks to invoke the imagination of the surrealists to help defeat the Third Reich, the others in 1950, where part of Paris is still occupied and a Surrealist group known as Main à plume is fighting against both the manifs and the Germans (who are seeking to manufacture manifs of their own.)

The viewpoint character in the 1950 sections is a man named Thibaut who, as well as running the gauntlet of the manifs and German troops, encounters a female US journalist named Sam and her unusual camera. Sam is claiming to be researching for a book but has other reasons for coming to Paris.

As an altered history (of sorts – perhaps this really ought to be called a distorted history -) Miéville has the usual fun with name-dropping an author enjoys in this type of novel. As well as various surrealists mentions are given to Aleister Crowley and Josef Mengele.

There is a problem with this sort of “six impossible things before breakfast” tale, however. While some people like to be taken out of themselves, frightened with the bogey man or “the horror,” breaking the illusion of normality is a dangerous tactic for an author. If what we read about goes against all our knowledge of how the world works how can we trust it? How does the author ensure the rest of what is shown to us connects? How is it relevant to our lives in the mundane world?

Even given that potentially insuperable drawback this story itself can be argued to fail in the way internet arguments are said to – by invoking the personality – or lack thereof – of the most famous failed artist in history. It also includes a critique of the blank, pallid nature of his artworks.

Adding to the sense of unreality is the story’s Afterword where the author relates how he came to write it, invited to a meeting with an old man who he says gave him the tale all but verbatim but without allowing any documenting of its contents, written or recorded. This man, we are to suppose, is the Thibaut we have been reading about. Paradoxically this has the effect of making what preceded it even more unbelievable.

Nevertheless Miéville’s skill as a writer is self evident but the most interesting part of the book was the list in the Notes of all the surrealist works which Miéville referenced in the novella’s text. He is clearly steeped in the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- Irritatingly for a book published in the UK there are USian spellings and usages throughout – presumably due to its prior US appearance. I know there would be financial costs involved but surely they cannot be so large as to obviate the small translations necessary? Meters (metres,) “grit their teeth” (gritted,) “had hid” (hidden,) refit (refitted.) “A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth” (a congregation … thrashes,) “was stood there” (was standing there,) “in if any subtle ways” (‘if in any subtle ways’ makes more sense,) “are now a crowd” (is now a crowd,) accordian (accordion,) “hemming and hawing” (humming and hawing,) “evanescent schmutz” this referred to images produced from candle smoke so surely ‘evanescent smuts’.)

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