Fictional cities are a long running theme throughout China Miéville’s work, from New Crobuzon to Besźel. It’s rarer that he deals in real places, although the influence of his early novella The Tain carries themes to his most recent work The Last Days of New Paris. Both deal with post-apocalyptic real cities: London and Paris; and both deal with reflection and image: imagos and manifs.
In The Last Days of New Paris, failed surrealist revolutionary Thibaut wanders a shelled out 50s Paris filled with “devils and fascists and errant art.” After the explosion of the S‑Bomb, the city becomes an enclosed warzone where Nazis fight to harness the power of surreal manifestations to win the war. Art becomes reality: women riding sentient bicycles, exquisite corpses come to life from illustrations, Arcimboldo’s fruit faces stalk marketplaces, demons are raised from hell by Nazis. Thibaut rescues Sam, a photojournalist, from pursuit by Nazis and trained wolf-tables (yep you read that right, these wolf-tables are based off artwork by Victor Brauner. It’s a China Miéville novella, what did you expect?).
At heart, The Last Days of New Paris is an exercise in Situationist dérive, drawn from the origins of flâneurie. Indeed, Miéville has taken the metaphysical metaphors of Baudelaire and planted them firmly in surreality, with demons raised through the gates of hell prowling the streets of Paris. Lauren Elkin’s recent work Flâneuse: Women Walk The City makes an excellent companion piece to Miéville’s novella. She writes “A more politically engaged descendant of Baudelairean flâneurie reigns today, one that operates by dérive, or ‘drift’. A mid-twentieth-century group of radical poets and artists calling themselves Situationists invented ‘psychogeography’, in which strolling becomes drifting and detached observation becomes a critique of post-war urbanism.” Paris becomes a psychogeography of surrealism; Thibaut and his revolutionary group, Main à Plume, are the precursors to the Situationist movement, where avant-garde art collides with Marxist politics.
He writes of Thibaut’s wanderings: “And if you go on walking like that and stay safe and keep out of sight then you will come some time to be alone again and there will be a stretch of window and bricks untouched by war and you could, for an instant, believe yourself back in old Paris.” Later, the great fear is that Paris will become an “empty city of charming houses.” Miéville takes on the role of post-war psychogeographer by placing himself firmly in the novella as the vehicle for Thibaut’s story.
Here is a novella ticking the boxes of expectation of Miéville’s work. There are monsters, cities, politics and supernatural flâneurs. There are concepts the reader will recognise from his collection Three Moments of an Explosion: mystic playing cards, sinister art and the trade in illicit magical artefacts. Like many of Miéville’s protagonists, Thibaut is an observer. He watches history unfold and ruminates on that which has already unfolded. At times, it appears the story belongs to Sam who is most active in the fight against the Nazis; Thibaut seems impotent and frozen by his past, ever the drifter surviving in Paris.
Since Italian photographer Felix Beato documented the Second Opium War in the late 1850s, photojournalism has played a significant part in the documentation of war. Photojournalist Sam takes on the role of documentarian, and later in the novella, so too does the author and reader as witness. Like surrealist art made of found objects, The Last Days of New Paris is both a book left to be found within and without the novel.
However, it is in the depictions of Sam where the worldbuilding becomes flimsy. While it’s clear from the outset her camera is not usual, nor is her appearance at the edge of the wood while being pursued by wolf-tables and Nazis, it was jarring that the camera and its use would be portrayed so inaccurately for the period when he insists that it is a real camera. “That camera is a camera. But it has other uses too,” says Sam. Most jarringly for photographers, Miéville writes: “She hands him one [film canister] and nods permission. Thibaut unspools it a little, lets a streetlamp outside the window shine through it. He squints at the tiny images. Occluded streets in negative.”
But film and negatives are not the same thing. Did he mean negatives? For to pull a roll of film from a canister and expose it to light would destroy it. Film becomes a negative once it has been developed. And what sort of camera was she using? If this is a continuation of World War II, a lot of photojournalists were using the bulky Speed Graphic, which did not take rolls of film. Or is she using a Contax II, like Robert Capa?
It wouldn’t matter if the world was less detailed, but Miéville’s work is consistently detailed with depictions of surrealist art, so much so that there’s even an appendix. It seems that the practicalities of creating art have been ignored. And when the images Thibaut sees from her “film” affect his actions, it becomes a major issue for me when the plot device is incorrect, no matter how magical the lantern.
However, it’s hard not to admire a writer who can use the words sastrugi, glossolalic and pleromic correctly in a sentence. There’s some beautiful language amidst the destruction of Paris, most notable the description of the epicentre of the S‑Blast at Les Deux Magots. “A whimper, a shriek, the burr of insects’ wings, the tolling of a bell, a city-wide outrushing, an explosion, a sweep and stream and a nova, megaton imaginary, of random and of dreams.”
While critics may complain about the absurd ending, it’s also a nod to the pulp influence in Miéville’s work. The Nazis mostly take on the role of cannon fodder; when named they are in anonymous groups, ready to be destroyed by an exquisite corpse, a surrealist gun and a magic camera. This is referenced later in the appendix as the anti-Nazi propaganda campaign ‘The Soldier with No Name’ by Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe. I’ve written previously for WFR about the desire to attribute Nazi behaviour to supernatural occurrences; it works for me in this book because it ties into their search for superweapons, regardless of how real or unreal they might have been.
There’s a high level of detail in the references to surrealist art, particularly in the use of the Exquisite Corpse as both a vehicle for creation and a monster itself. Exquisite Corpse, a game played by surrealists who drew elements of an image then passed the folded paper on for someone else to add to it, becomes an integral part of the New Paris story when these papers come to life. In fact, there are so many complex ideas brought up by the relationship between these images and the city, that this review can hardly do them justice.
Following the chains of influence, from surrealism to the 70s, with its pulpy-arty mélange The Last Days of New Paris is also reminiscent of comics magazine Métal Hurlant. Although drawn from surrealist imagery, the floating Eiffel Tower suggests another floating pyramid over Paris, that of Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy. Apocalypses are not new to Paris, nor to the bande dessinée. The surreal and supernatural is a reaction to the reality of the destruction of war; especially visible in Japanese manga Akira. With its rich visuals of surrealism, I wonder if The Last Days of New Paris would have worked better as a graphic novel.
But our time in New Paris feels too short. Names are listed, dropped and left in a roll call of city places. If you haven’t been to Paris, you may find yourself wondering about the Bois de Bologne and the Prison du Cherche-Midi. The unnecessary author intervention at the end serves to emphasise the continuing theme of bearing witness, even in fiction. I would have rather lingered a little longer in the surreal city, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where an unhinged survivor recollects the events which led up to his entrapment in a decaying world.