“It’s a fantasy novel, no question, but it’s also a pretty rip roaring wartime adventure story” – The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
From the outside it would be easy to consider the concept behind The Last Days of New Paris and back away from the book slowly. China Mieville’s books can, at times, feel very heady and strange, almost to the point where they stop really making much sense. It’s a problem I’ve come across before in his writing, especially in his short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion. Upon opening The Last Days of New Paris, you get the feeling that you’re embarking on another one of these stories of his, but what is most remarkable about this book how, at its core, it’s a very conventional novel.
It is 1950, and we’re in Paris. A lone fighter, Thibault explores the streets, which are overrun with the manifestations of Surrealist works, brought to life by events explored in alternating chapters. The art and text of Surrealism now lives and hunts the streets of the French capital. From Redon’s Smiling Spider, and Dali’s Burning Giraffe, to Nadja’s The Cat’s Dream; the creatures that have come about as a result of an attack ten years ago, have transformed the city into a bizarre warzone. The Nazis still have a presence, and as their own attempts at recreating the events that started the manifestations have been wildly unsuccessful, they have instead raised an army of demons from hell to assist them in their fight to take back the city. In the middle of all this, Thibault discovers a woman, Sam, who has come to Paris to write a book about the events.
From that point on, Mieville has crafted a very traditional behind enemy lines narrative. It’s a fantasy novel, no question, but it’s also a pretty rip roaring wartime adventure story. That’s not a criticism at all. Mieville is at his best when he’s worming his way through his own version of a genre novel. What is The City and The City but a brilliantly realised crime novel? What is Kraken but an urban fantasy through the prism of the weird? Likewise, The Last Days of New Paris is first and foremost a corker of a war novel, it just happens that the Nazis have demons, and the French resistance has art. You really couldn’t ask for a better metaphor.
It’s a novel full of incredible detail, so much so that you almost wish that your time in New Paris had lasted just a little longer. Even including the detailed appendix, and bizarre afterword, the whole thing stands at fewer than two hundred pages, and whilst it never outstays its welcome, the book almost feels like it doesn’t have enough time to do everything it wants. Mieville packs so much into such a short space, name dropping and referencing works of art in practically every paragraph, that the writing does at times suffer. Unlike Mieville’s previous short book, This Census Taker, which was perfectly paced, The Last Days of New Paris feels overwhelming.
Nevertheless, this is still very recognisably a Mieville book. There are shades of the political, especially in his descriptions of the Main a Plume resistance movement. There is, front and centre, the weird, no more evident that in his inclusion of an Exquisite Corpse, a roaming creature made using the surrealist technique of the same name. In the end too, there is the lingering sense that you’ve read something unlike anything you’ve read before. Even if he’s treading on the ground that other war novels have been before, Mieville does it in his own, unique way.
Any Cop?: Mieville fans will eat it up. It’s not his best, but it tells a great story in an interesting setting. Recommended.
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- March 2, 2017 / 9:00 am