Towards the end of British writer China Mieville’s latest fantasy novella, his young protagonist, Thibaut, muses: “Something doesn’t make sense.” “Really?” replies Sam, his mysterious sidekick. “Just one thing?”
It’s not an altogether unexpected line: after all, Thibaut has just destroyed a centaur that is part giant, part Second World War German panzer tank. In a world in which the Nazis are still in power in the 1950s in Paris, but are battling figures from surrealist paintings – “manifs” – that have come to life, it probably pays for Mieville to be just a little sardonic.
The 44-year-old has been picking away at the boundaries between surrealist fantasy and literary fiction for some time now – most notably in 2011’s Embassytown.
It is not particularly unfair to suggest some of his flights of fancy are an acquired taste: undoubtedly The Last Days of New Paris might be a struggle for those who find the prospect of the river Seine infested with sharks with canoe-seats for backs a bit silly, rather than a lovely nod to the parlour game of consequences played by surrealists in 1929.
But Mieville – as the copious research notes at the back of this dazzlingly inventive tale reveal – does somehow make sense of a world in which a version of André Breton’s surrealist manifesto Exquisite Corpse is battling the Nazis and their allies. Which happen to be the forces of hell – a relatively horrifying arch enemy, you’d have to suggest. Meanwhile, Thibaut takes on almost superhero-like powers as he tries to make sense of what is happening to Paris and who is on what side.
How does he overcome demons and Nazi-developed paintings brought to life? He has a special pair of bulletproof pyjamas.
You can argue whether a mock essay at the back suggesting The Last Days of New Paris is a “true” story told to Mieville is really necessary. But for all the playful elements – there’s even a video game-style “end of level baddie” feel to the climactic battle – this is a wildly imaginative tale with a nightmarish, dreamlike quality and real substance.
Mieville seems to be suggesting that art and culture remain a powerful salve against the forces of extremism and fascism – and while this novella perhaps won’t stay that long in the memory – the ideas it grapples with certainly should.