The Secret War”

An excerpt from the novel The Golden Age

Michal Ajvaz’s second novel translated into English, The Golden Age, is described by the publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, as “a fantastical travelogue by a modern-day Gulliver about a civilization he once encountered on a tiny island in the Atlantic.” The various observations and encounters of the unnamed narrator delineate a prolonged culture clash between the European interlopers and the indigenous society. In lesser hands this would be an opportunity primarily for satire and testing of European approaches. But for Ajvaz this essential conflict allows him to chronicle – in concrete, mysterious, and,yes, weird ways – the transformation of ideas and objects between the two cultures. “The Secret War” is a chapter in which the narrator relates part of the history of the island. The Golden Age made’s list of the best books of the year. For more on Ajvaz’s work, read this essay from Context. — Ann & Jeff VanderMeer


Translated by Andrew Oakland

Now the Europeans were coming to regret the vaingloriousness with which they had paraded their machines to the natives. The is­landers turned the handles of the apparatus and machines brought to the island by the foreigners and all the components moved as predetermined, but everything was different. A machine per­formed the activity for which it had been built, lifting or beating, ejecting or grinding or turning, but suddenly these functions were no more important than all the other movements of the machine that made them possible, while these movements were no more important than the many small, pointless movements with which they were accompanied — the shaking and rattling and grinding of parts, the various vibrations for which there were no names. (Here the Europeans suddenly felt their language to be inadequate.)

Suddenly it was no longer possible to distinguish the purpose­ful movements from these others, and the unified process towards whose achievement all movements of the machine were joined was not the most important, nor even was it different in kind from the movements and processes going on around but apart from the ap­paratus, such as branches swaying in the wind or the rustling made by the sand as it recast its shape. All these movements became parts of some kind of cosmic ballet in which every part had an equal share, in which every part was equally important, equally nonsen­sical and had the same disturbing, bewitching gift for histrionics.

All this gave the Europeans bad migraines, which drove them into the gloom of their rooms and interior courtyards. They were alarmed to realize that they were beginning to look at the world through the eyes of the islanders. They were made nauseous by the world revealing itself to them, a world in which all sounds made a dreamlike music and all movements a monotonous, incompre­hensible, melancholy ballet. On the island a great many things oc­curred which frightened them, but perhaps most frightening of all was the fact that in the depths of their consciousness they under­stood this singular world and actually liked it. They had grasped the extreme certainties of mathematics and faith but in so doing they had accelerated the catastrophe: to this presumed stronghold they had attracted demons who fell on the new prey with gusto and devoured its world. With the fall of mathematics and faith, the rest of the world, too, would go soundlessly into decline.

The Europeans continued to hold to mathematics, even after they began to perceive mathematical equations and calculations as bizarre dramas, as evidence of the work of the same blind forces as those that cultivated logical deduction and flowed through ma­chines, forces which drove an unceasing, monotonous division and unification. The Europeans were made nauseous by multiplication because now they perceived it as a diseased swelling, a proliferation anterior to any kind of sense and order, a growth which had arisen by the dull repetition of the same numbers and their resigned coa­lescence in the whole; they dreaded division because in it they saw disintegration, made more horrifying still by the unnatural disinte­gration of wholes into parts of equal size. Addition was yet worse, as it meant a progressive decline in new units, heralding the de­struction of all divided shapes and the enthronement of One that is nothing, the victory of the monster of the Whole. Subtraction was the saddest of all: they saw in it the falling off of sick pieces, a kind of arithmetical leprosy, a crumbling that turned shapes into dust, that led down another path to nothingness. They performed calculations because they sought salvation in exactitude, but at the same time they were horrified to perceive mathematical operations as movements of some monstrous figure; instead of considering the result of a calculation, the Europeans saw the choreography of a loathsome dance, a dance similar to that performed by the treacherous machines.

Having been betrayed by mathematics they turned to the saints of their prayer books, but now they had the impression that the sounds of the prayers were made up of some dark material which was not of their God’s creation and which had so little in common with Him it could not even be said to stand in opposition to Him; indeed, He was indifferent to it. It was just that in His words resided the murmur of the ancient melody, a melody that sounded in the emptiness before the Word, that hummed quietly in the first word and in which the meanings of words are still dissolved today. And pictures of the faces of saints were lost in the labyrinthine pleats of the drapes, became nothing more than pleats in some fabric undulating in the cosmic wind, gathering then opening out as if in a dream, submerged in a spider’s web of fine cracks that absorbed and devoured them, then spewed out the face of an unknown god or devil.

The islanders liked the barely perceptible shapes made by the waves of the sea and the leaves as they moved in the wind, but the geometry of the town the foreigners had built presented them with no problems; the straight lines and right angles seemed to them like the parting of the same forces that draw and then erase white figures of foam on the sea and wake in the treetops a silvery surf. These forces created all shapes and all shapes exhaled them; the forces were the same, whether they played with elusive traces of smoke or drew a straight line and then broke it into a right angle. Through the eyes of the islanders the straight lines of the lower town were transformed into a dreamlike web, whose lines sounded like thin strings in a music of empty, apathetic or liberated time that was heading nowhere. And so a town that was soaked in dreams when it first came into being, now lost its last remnants of substan­tiality: it transformed from a dream to a dream. For the foreigners it became a tormentuous labyrinth of hot walls from which there was no escape, while the natives were able to settle in, take walks about the squares, and relax in the shade of the great colonnades and on the magnificent granite embankments with their statues of sphinxes and lions.

The native women submitted to the foreigners, but the foreign­ers acquired the habits and the gestures of the natives and their children spoke the natives’ language better than their own. It seems that by the third generation, the conquerors had merged with the natives: they had forgotten their language, abandoned their books, machines and their god, and were listening to the murmur of the sea and the scratching of the sand, or watching shadows move across walls on hot afternoons. All that remained of the foreigners were certain features in the faces of the islanders — like the letters of a forgotten alphabet, the sense of which has been lost. Of the foreigner’s language, a few roots remained, which the language of the natives absorbed and used in its games; they were good for prefixes and suffixes. The shapes of the instruments the conquer­ors brought to the island can still be seen today in the adornment of facades — in simplified, distorted and endlessly repeated form. And thus the conquerors disappeared. What remained of them was the lower town — their dream of home that had become a sti­fling labyrinth, overgrown with reeds and smothered in sand.

I believe that this breakdown in the thinking of the foreigners after years of torment, homesickness and anxiety brought with it a deep, unexpected joy, and that in its final phase the foreigners accelerated the process themselves. To their astonishment and de­light, they began to understand that the labyrinth they had built for themselves and that had them in its grasp, was after all the home they had yearned for while at sea, that it was more of a home to them than the distant cities of Europe whose systems had been dissolved for them beyond all reconstruction in the winds of the tropics. Out of the town the foreigners had built as a memorial, the natives had fashioned a new town — a labyrinth-town — in which, so it proved, it was possible to live in contented tranquillity; it was at once Ithaca and the island of the Lotus Eaters. But in the birth of the new town the foreigners also played their part — by how they saw it, by how they responded to it in gesture, by the paths they pursued in it. Now they saw the same town as the natives did. For the foreigners, too, all shapes had the same importance; their feet, too, made of the town’s geometric ground plan an intricate man­dala of futility. They came to understand that the force echoed in the motions of machines and the procedures of logic and math­ematics could be accepted and delighted in, that the cosmic ballet they had had such an abhorrence of, could be seen as a perform­ance of endless fascination. I imagine them sitting on the patios of their palaces, just watching, filled with a joy growing like the weeds and shrubs produced by scattered seeds, like the sand that blew gently into their living spaces. I think they forgot all about Europe, but the cities of the north were transformed in the joyful dream of the moment, which floated among the hot walls and was just as much a part of this place as the roar of the sea. A golden age began with stains, rustlings and aimless journeys.

I understood them because I, too, got a taste on the island of the lotus of effervescent chaos. Perhaps this was not even chaos, but something beyond chaos, a space of calm, swirling forces from which shapes, images and some sense of order rose up before sink­ing back without regret or memory. I would say to Karael almost daily how much I was irritated by the indifference and laziness of the islanders, but still I let one ship after another sail away without me, until the time arrived when I realized that my own transforma­tion had progressed so far that in a few weeks or days I would be unable to leave the island, ever. So return home I did, but I will be forever marked by my stay on the island. I feel the island present within me still like an incurable disease a traveller brings back from the tropics in his blood, like a stifled fever that silently marks every gesture and glance. And I know that forever more every shape I see will be lost in the repulsive yet delightful network of mazy, tangled lines; forever more words will be somewhat higher waves on the endless, unbroken surface of the rustlings.

Reprinted by kind permission of Dalkey Archive Press.

Some far off island

Michal Ajvaz (1949 -) is a brilliant Czech novelist, poet and translator. Born into an exiled Russian family, Ajvaz studied Czech studies and esthetics at Charles University in Prague. He did not begin publishing fiction until 1989, due to the political repression in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). Ajvaz’s brand of fiction would have been antithetical to any entrenched orthodoxy. His novel Prázdné ulice was awarded the prestigious Jaroslav Seifert Prize for literary achievement (2005). English-language translations include the critically acclaimed The Other City (2009) and The Golden Age (2010) from Dalkey Archive Press.