On the streets of occupied Paris there is unfathomable danger, both to those inhabitants trapped inside the quarantined city and the Nazi army in ostensible control but themselves struggling to comprehend or control the outbreak of oddness, the surge in the surreal, the manifestations of madness which have ripped themselves from canvas and marble and paper to wander without apparent purpose following the event known as “the s-bomb.”
An orphan of the conflict, Thibaut’s natural aptitude and knowledge of surrealism has made him a survivor in the intervening years but the enemy are now attempting to harness the power to their own ends, and together with outsider Sam, a photojournalist who claims to be gathering material for a book, they must tame the exquisite corpses and avoid the wolf tables and defeat the master plan of the enemy and one way or another bring about The Last Days of New Paris.
A mythic quest in the modern era, like the art which has manifested, the roots of China Miéville’s latest novella are manifold and some stretch to antiquity, though many are more recent, and akin to the work of Poe, Stoker or Lovecraft in his afterword Miéville claims the manner in which the story came to him is as astonishing as the tale itself. Indicating as his predecessors did that he must tell us this in hopes that we will believe him too rather than think him mad it is a literary artifice which invites the reader to join the game and indulge themselves, to suspend cynicism though not critical faculty.
Touching on the occult interests of the Third Reich and the complexity of the situation in Paris, the sometimes hostile factions of resistance, those who collaborated in order to save themselves and those who actively betrayed their country for a seat by the fire, despite Miéville’s stated preference not to indulge in fantasies which are prefaced by an elaborate map The Last Days of New Paris is very much a guidebook to that altered city.
Miéville’s love of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There was evident in Un Lun Dun where his own illustrations were modelled after those of John Tenniel’s definitive interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s characters, and here the copious appendix detailing the multitude of “recalcitrant art” and its creators reminds of the celebrated combined edition of 1960 annotated by Martin Gardner which offered illumination of Carroll’s text, verse and allusion.
Such is the focus on the art of it all that with over twenty pages of notes supporting less than two hundred of text there is a tendency for the research to overwhelm the sparse narrative and as a result the characters and situations are underdeveloped, a raiding party where several of the Main à plume are killed in a hail of enemy fire having insufficient emotional context, a terrible betrayal enacted by a character barely recalled, and the finale resembles too much an end-of-level boss smackdown undermined by a hasty diablo ex machina.
Out of Miéville’s own oeuvre, The Last Days of New Paris reminds of his Lovecraftian short story Covehithe though here the manifestations are more developed and sophisticated; collected in Three Moments of an Explosion, the frozen detonation of that title story echoes over and over in ground zero of the s-bomb, the Parisian café Les Deux Magots, source of the disruption which has twisted the reality of the city, while the constructed beings seem kin to the work of the thaumaturges of his breakthrough novel, Perdido Street Station.
His “Dream Cycle” stories and his Cthulhu mythos hailing from the same era as the surrealists came to prominence on the other side of the Atlantic, there is not only Lovecraft in the twisted forms of the Nazi summoned demons but also Clive Barker in that they are tormented beings exiled to a world where their very existence causes them pain, a misery they are only too happy to share.
A curiously late arrival on these shores, The Last Days of New Paris was published in America last summer, several months ahead of the presidential election, and while the Nazis dismiss that which they don’t like as “degenerate” and Thibaut uses art as a weapon, his transformation in some ways echoes Miéville’s own, a man who once fought in the grim trenches of politics when he stood for election as a member of parliament for the Marxist party before challenging the establishment through his own unconventional art.
As the surrealists pushed their art to the limit so does Miéville, but where they crafted their conjunctions visually, allowing an immediacy of comprehension, he has only the tool of language, creating his phantasmagoria solely through imagery. His success, as with all art, can only be judged by each reader individually and as indicated in the opening epigraph of the painter Grace Pailthorpe, what is important is not so much what it means but what it means to the observer.
The Last Days of New Paris is available now from Picador
An online resource gathering much of the art referred to in the novella can be found here