Fantasy writer China Miéville’s “The Last Days of New Paris” imagines an epic battle between the Nazis occupying Paris and the practitioners of Surrealist art.
“The Last Days of New Paris”
by China Mieville
Del Rey, 205 pp., $25
The power art has to disturb and rearrange our world is made vividly clear in “The Last Days of New Paris.” Transgressive “New Weird” fantasist China Miéville’s tribute to the Surrealist Movement pits Nazi-driven demons against weaponized “manifs”: centaurlike bicycle women and other embodiments of impossible avant-garde images.
In this novel’s alternate 1941, an experimental “S-Blast” unleashes artistic fever dreams upon reality. In response, the Third Reich recruits a renegade priest to summon Hell’s denizens, and battles between these supernatural legions devastate entire Parisian neighborhoods. Though many of his surrealist comrades die, teenaged Paris native Thibaut survives and continues to fight fascism.
Nine years after the S-Blast, the remains of the conflict it shaped litter the path of Sam, a spy who poses as an American photojournalist commemorating the reconfigured city’s bizarre beauty. World War II has reached an impasse. Accompanied by the now-adult Thibault, Sam makes her imperiled way under a legless Eiffel Tower and past mud-dwelling, tentacled monsters to halt the mysterious Nazi military project known as “Fall Rot.”
Miéville switches chapter by chapter between New Paris’ 1941 origin story and the novel’s denouement in his re-imagined 1950. Within those periods, he dices up and disposes of narrative continuity with the flair of a collage artist. The resulting portrait of a city outside of time entices and rewards readers, even as it rebuffs traditional ideas about how stories should be told.
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But traditional literary aesthetics are not the point here. From its opening epigraph about the pitiful inadequacy of asking for guidance in reactions to surrealist art, to end notes detailing the derivations of many of New Paris’ weirder entities, this is more than a simple, linear tale. In addition to the text, Miéville provides illustrations: a card used in his characters’ customized tarot, a landscape populated by dozens of birdcages and a gigantic doll’s head. There’s also an epilogue-cum-framing-tale named “On Coming to Write ‘The Last Days of New Paris,’” in which the author claims to have heard the whole story from an eccentricstranger.
This literary device, commonly employed in the works of H. Rider Haggard and other authors of Victorian adventure fiction, lends a sort of retro charm to “New Paris.” At once old-fashioned and unconventional, Miéville’s novel transcends expectations of modernism raised by its recent publication.
And there are expectations based on the whitewashed version of art history taught at most universities. The author notes that many of the Surrealist Movement’s members were women and people of color. Some are as well-known, such as Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo, while others, including poet Simone Yoyotte of Martinique, are more obscure. For people of color such as myself, unused to seeing ourselves represented like this, this validation of our ongoing influence on world culture is endearingly reassuring. And it’s part of the realism that’s necessary at the root of great fantasy.
“Play is resistance,” states one of the book’s diverse characters. Miéville’s playful impulse helps him resist the limitations that overly easy assumptions about race, art, war, loyalty and truth can do to writing. His “New Paris” incites readers to take their imaginations seriously, to indulge creativity, not as an alternative to following through on our convictions, but as a means of their defense.