“Little did he know—or maybe he refused to acknowledge—that there are no pure story streams; all stories are scary, all come from a single strange-smelling wellspring that seeps into the folds of things and collects in dirty corners of the spaces we inhabit, all trace patterns of desire and fear that aren’t even ours but those of a monster whose dream is our life.”
Here’s a story that starts innocently enough, like so many stories before it, with a murder—no, make that two. Of course, that’s too simple. No murder mystery, if you’re expecting a story that will attempt to reach some kind of conclusion, an explanation, starts with the act itself alone; it begins somewhere else, somewhere back where the story really begins… But here’s a warning: this is a murder mystery that will wind its way through more than a few wildly unlikely stories on the way from execution to explanation.
To be honest, I signed up for the adventure that is Michal Ajvaz’s Journey to the South without any clear expectation about what might lie in wait for me. If you come to this 2003 novel, newly translated by Andrew Oakland, with previous experience with the Czech author’s idiosyncratic approach to postmodern fiction, you will likely be prepared to simply strap yourself in for an improbable, endlessly discursive, multi-layered excursion into the heart of what it means tell stories at all. If you’re new to his work, consider this an invitation to dive into the deep end—about six hundred pages deep, give or take.
The novel opens in the isolated village of Loutro on the south shore of Crete, where an unnamed narrator chances upon a young man, a Czech it would seem, with an unusual assortment of reading material. Overcome with curiosity, he decides to eschew his typical tendency to avoid engaging with fellow countrymen when abroad, and comment on the books. Thus begins a lengthy conversation that will extend over several evenings and countless glasses of wine and ouzo as Martin, a philosophy student working on a PhD thesis on Kant, shares the strangely convoluted tale of the circumstances that have led him to travel from Prague to Crete.
One evening some four months earlier, on his way home from the library, Martin had chanced upon a poster advertising a ballet based on The Critique of Pure Reason by Emmanuel Kant. The show was playing every Wednesday for two months and, this being a Wednesday, he headed to the theatre that very night. According to the program, the composer Tomáš Kantor was a writer with little published work who had “died tragically in Turkey in July or August 2006”—the summer before. As the show began, the young Kant scholar endeavoured to interpret the meaning and roles of the dancers onstage. To his surprise it really did begin to make sense to him. Certain dancers were clearly portraying sensory matter, others pure form, with a violet clad figure to represent Transcendental Apperception, that which we call “I.” Standing in the back, was a veiled mysterious figure that could only be Ding an sich—“The Thing in Itself” or the true status of objects which we cannot know. All was going well until the end of the second act when suddenly The Thing In Itself emerged from the shadows and began to move about, throwing off the dancers. The figure advanced to centre stage where it stopped, pulled out a pistol and shot straight into the audience, killing a man seated in the front row.
Martin, like everyone else in the theatre, is now witness to a murder. But before long he is even more deeply involved. The victim, it turns out, was a wealthy businessman, Petr Quas, and the step brother of the ballet’s composer, Tomáš Kantor. However, what captures Martin’s interest is the lovely red-headed woman he sees, first at the police station and again at the university. Drawn to her, he discovers that she is Kristyna, Tomáš’s ex-girlfriend who is still holding an inextinguishable torch for him since he abruptly broke up with her two months before his mysterious death. Smitten, he arranges to meet with her daily so she can tell him all about Tomáš on the pretence of wanting to understand if and how the two brothers’ death may be linked.
So, now we have Martin reporting what Kristyna told him about the unhappy childhoods of Tomáš and Petr, the former’s multiple attempts at creative expression that ultimately ended in darkness and despair, and the latter’s brief success as a poet. But where one brother finds his way from poetry into business, the other settles into a post as a transportation dispatcher at the end of the tram line. Then, one day, while off sick, a novel suddenly starts to take shape before Tomáš’s eyes, first as an empty city, then as a coastal town in an imagined nation complete with characters and strange occurrences. A series of events ultimately leads to the injury of his protagonist, Marius, who is taken to recover at the home of his lover’s grandparents where he is told a story, second-hand, which in turn contains a novel—science fiction this time—and by this point the depth of stories within stories is running very deep, taking us to cities and countries, real and imaginary, across oceans and continents. However, when he finally winds his way to the end of his composition, the author is unsatisfied. Tomáš feels that his book, which had arisen out of nothing, has failed to correspond to the nothingness he carries inside:
“There was nothing so rich that it could be expressed merely by an endless proliferation of stories, a never-ending cascade of events in which other events spurted forth from every object, space, and gesture, then yet more events from the spaces, objects, and gestures of these. Tomáš felt that even the entire cosmos would be too little for the expression of nothing; a cosmos that expressed emptiness would have to be endless.”
His overarching novel then starts to mutate and grow, sending out tendrils, so to speak that branch off and flower in unexpected ways forming part of a network of signs and rebuses that Martin and Kristyna will follow as they eventually travel from Prague to Crete in search of Tomáš’s killer.
If Journey to the South sounds like a baggy monster of a book, well, it would be if Ajvaz didn’t have both feet firmly planted in the tell-don’t-show school of storytelling. The ungainly nest of narratives he constructs has its own internal cohesion and propulsive energy—no matter how strange or how far reaching—because at the end of the day, Martin is reporting it all to his audience, the narrator who interjects when he wants to clarify something and reminds us that we are actually at a quiet resort in Crete. And, of course, Martin himself is an active participant in the story he is relaying, driven by his attraction to Krystina if nothing else. Their fanciful journey through Europe from one unlikely—and strangely unravelling—clue to another is marked by their own doubts about the reasonableness of the entire enterprise. At one point, Martin even wonders if he has gotten caught up in a cheap Dan Brown novel, his own private Da Vinci Code. But this is a murder mystery and our amateur detectives do manage to make their way to an oddly satisfying conclusion. If, in fact the story actually ends when this book does…
Journey to the South is, then, classic Ajvaz territory. Structurally he favours the mise-en-abîme, the story with a story framework (fittingly, “placed into the abyss”), and delights in cliché genre tropes like car chases, monsters, cartoon villains and more. Woven into this are philosophical, scientific and theoretical references, often in unexpected contexts. I suspect that one will either welcome the kind of world he creates and his exploration of the possibility of reaching some semblance of truth (reality) in the stories we read and tell, or find his work hopelessly restricted to a game of limited scope and value. However, although he likes to keep his fiction separate from his theoretical work, like fellow Czech postmodern novelist Daniela Hodrova, Ajvaz is a respected literary critic and it is unlikely that his critical principles have not seeped into his fantastic storyscapes to some degree. (For a discussion of his academic work see David Vichnar’s essay on the Equus site.) Nonetheless, some critics have accused Ajvaz of repeatedly playing in the same sandbox, hauling out the same tired toys. Vichnar also answers this complaint cleverly:
What this wide-spread, if also reductive and simplifying, viewpoint fails to acknowledge is that Ajvaz’s fictional world leaves unresolved, and thus in perpetual motion and fruitful exchange, the dynamics of opposing principles which his thought strove to bring to a stasis of resolution. His fiction is, thus, bound to repeat itself, again and again, in all of his attempted re-writes of the impossible accounts of all the other cities, all the other intimations of pre-articulated fields, approachable in fiction only through linguistic articulation, and thus always already pre-fabricated. If this be the failure of Ajvaz’s fiction—a simple formula repeated ad nauseam without conclusive progress—then its saving grace, like that of Beckett’s, is its continuous effort to “fail better” – imaginatively, challengingly, and ultimately, enjoyably.
At the end of the day, I am hard pressed to express how effectively Ajvaz manages to pull off such a multi-layered, wildly entertaining feat of storytelling making it intelligent and thought provoking at the same time. It’s easy to lose track just how deeply embedded you are in the stories within stories (or even now to unwrap them to remember just who was telling what when), but somehow it works. It’s serious and absurd, sad and funny, cheesy and moving. So, although it may have been my first Ajvaz adventure, it won’t be my last.
Journey to the South by Michal Ajvaz is translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland and will be published by Dalkey Archive Press on March 28, 2023.