The Last Days of New Paris
London: Picador, 2017
“Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations (Breton, 1934).”
By juxtaposing images in a way that bypasses normal thought processes, for example the man with an apple for a face, surrealism exposes the hypocrisy and contradictions of the bourgeois world. This has, clearly, revolutionary potential and Trotsky took an interest in the movement as part of a deeper commitment to art. Surrealists may have lacked engagement with the byproduct of colonialism that was the First World War but they clearly recognised the threat of Fascism and its apologists wherever they were to be found. Control of the present and the future, of course, involves control of the past. As Jameson (2014:25) explains: “Nor is surrealist agency – the unconscious – at stake here: but rather the repression or occultation of agency as such (we will see later on that the very temporality of capitalist production, along with market exchange, consists in the obliteration of the past.”
The role of the artist, therefore, incorporates the need to help other people understand the purpose and value of change and to promote, as Gramsci had it, the optimism of the will that improvements to the world can be made. Generally speaking, this is attempted through production and dissemination of various works of art but there are occasions on which the artist is called upon to become a person of action and a protagonist in the struggle. One such occasion was the defence of Paris against the approaching Nazi forces. Fighting in the streets might be all that was possible in our history but what if other possibilities existed What if, for example, a scientific-occult experiment were to occur that brought about a transformation of surrealism into a real life phenomenon that conjures up physical likenesses of manifs – manifestations of the conceptual made real. Great warriors arise, such as the exquisite corpse, which strike at the fascists and undermine their morale through demonstrating the failures of their ideology.
This is the basis of China Miéville’s new novella, which is set in the Paris of 1941 and the New Paris of 1950, in which the creatures of the S-Force continue to battle for control of the streets. They are faced by antithetical forces conjured by the Nazis, which consumer the manifs to bring forth hell-flesh monstrosities. They are joined in this by the manifestations of a certain Austrian water colourist’s vapid creatures, whose emptiness poses a threat to the city as a whole. Desperate measures are required to control both the past and the present so as to be able to hope for the future.
The text is presented as a representation of interviews given by a mysterious figure who may have been one of the central figures in the struggle and now wishes the truth – or at least his version of the truth – to be known to all. As the tale is told, a profusion of notable surrealist images come into play as part of the wider battle. These are tied into our normal understanding of the world by a series of endnotes, which have a scholarly quality to them. Miéville is a scholarly person and has demonstrated this elsewhere, not least with his retelling of the Russian revolution, October. Occult themes and the transformative powers of human emotions and actions have been present in much of his work, including masterpieces such as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. He continues that tradition here in a very readable tale that zips along at a rapid pace, despite the oddity of the surroundings:
“Here, the Palais Garnier, its stairs dinosaur bones. He squints. Le Chabanais, the walls of the great building dissolved, light glimmering through the resin that has set around suspended women and men and the opulence and billowing cloths and gilded fittings within. A vegetal puppet, stringy, composite floral thing with fleeting human face ooze-growing up boulevard Edgar Quintet (p.56).”
This is a terrific and fascinating work and one which, despite the slenderness of the text, nevertheless plays an important part in Miéville’s oeuvre. Readers who do not know his work but enjoy this book have a great deal of pleasure in front of them discovering the other books he has written.
Breton, Andre, “What Is Surrealism?” 1934, available at: www.generation-online.org/c/fcsurrealism2.htm.
Jameson, Fredric, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London and New York, NY: Verso, 2014).