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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Golden Age

by
Michal Ajvaz


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Golden Age



Title: The Golden Age
Author: Michal Ajvaz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 329 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Golden Age - US
The Golden Age - UK
The Golden Age - Canada
The Golden Age - India
L'autre île - France
  • Czech title: Zlatý věk
  • Translated by Andrew Oakland

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Our Assessment:

A- : imagination at inspired play

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Golden Age is, like Ajvaz's The Other City, an alternative-world fantasia presenting a different reality alongside our own in which much seems without purpose or reason -- at least the sort of purpose and reason we are familiar with. Again, too, this other-world exists side by side with the familiar world, in contemporary times: in this case, the narrator writes about an island in the Atlantic Ocean where he has spent a considerable amount of time (though he also describes scenes from, for example, his native Czech Republic). The island is not cut off from the world, and foreigners come and go, and there is trade with the world at large, but it still stands, in many respects, almost entirely apart.
       Much of the novel is devoted to describing how island-life and society differs from what we are familiar with. The islanders have not embraced much technology, for example: they don't have automobiles, money, or telephones (there's only a single one on the island, and it's only visitors who use it). From the aromatic clocks -- a different smell marking every hour -- to the unusual local cuisine, almost everything functions differently here than elsewhere.
       The locals also seem incredibly placid, but there is much here that is in constant flux -- notably language. Outside forces -- from invaders to influences -- would seem to have no difficulty overpowering anything local, but instead of becoming truly dominant find themselves drawn into the island-ways. Everything becomes part of this greater whole, which itself continues to evolve -- and:

Not only things themselves were subject to constant change on the island, but the manner of these changes were also constantly evolving.
       It's a place:
beyond chaos, a space of calm, swirling forces from which shapes, images and some sense of order rose up before sinking back without regret or memory.
       The manifestation of this that the narrator lingers over longest -- though he takes his time before really getting to it -- is the Book, a Borgesian volume that is the one and only book on the island. The islanders don't have much interest in art -- "The islanders did not like art because its shapes stood in the way of their shapelessness, and its sounds drowned out the music of silence" -- but they do have this one Book, filled with a vast number of constantly changing stories, which gets passed around from one person to the next, for them to hold onto, read (and delete, and write in) as they see fit. With its extremely thin paper and pockets that provides the space for stories to be expanded upon, this isn't quite an infinite volume, but is, for all intents and purposes, limitless. It is also fragmentary, and: "at any given moment no one knew it in its entirety".
       It's a fantastic concept, and very nicely conveyed -- and so too in the narrator's reluctance to try to give readers a sense of its contents, because:
     I was yet more afraid of the Book's peculiar tendency to uncontrollable proliferation and expansion. I knew the Book well enough to realise that it was unlikely that the long period it had spent in a remote part of my brain had sufficed for its deactivation. I knew that once I began bringing extracts from the Book out into the light I would need to proceed with the caution of an experienced pyrotechnician -- without careful handling any of them could explode, spraying over a wide area contents hitherto hidden. The light-minded narrator might have chosen a chapter from the Book and then found himself at the center of a blast, with pages raining down on him by the hundreds.
       The narrator's account does include a variety of stories and episodes from the Book, the island, and beyond; the novel as a whole is neither a straightforward survey-account, nor the story of a personal journey. Much of this novel reads almost anthropologically-analytical -- but the narrative also veers off into a variety of actual stories. It's also a philosophical fiction, as the narrator maintains:
     Genuine reality is the birth of reality, and the birth of reality is an act that is spun out of myth an alive with spirits. We see the world in the convex mirror of a weird obsession that belongs not to us but to the monster that stalks the halls of our consciousness; all plane mirrors are blind.
       The Golden Age is such a convex mirror; this strange world he describes so calmly and matter-of-factly an alter-world that is truly different -- and yet just a refraction of our familiar world.
       Ajvaz does present a different universe, but what he really offers is a different way of looking, a reinterpretation of the familiar. This has as much to do with the quirky world he posits as with how the material is presented. This includes the fact that, as he explains:
I should like to reveal to you -- my judicious reader, who is in no particular hurry -- that the most important aspects of any story reside in its digressions, even when connections between a digression and the main story are impossible to establish. This is one of the things I learned on the island, and I believe it to be true of more than just literature.
       Near the end, the narrator notes:
Now I believe that the Book was ridiculing art, was a parody of art. [...] I know now that the Book was not just a parody of art; it was a parody of our world as a whole
       The Golden Age presents these concepts and notions surprisingly effectively; at heart a philosophical-aesthetic treatise, it nevertheless works as fiction, too -- not quite your everyday novel, but offering most of its satisfactions (including plot-wise, even if doesn't have a traditional story-arc). A lovely catalog of -- and meditation on -- other-worldly ideas and notions as well as a multi-layered work of fiction(s), The Golden Age is a wonderfully entertaining novel, with the sparkle of its bits coalescing surprisingly into an intriguing conceptual work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 May 2010

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Links:

The Golden Age: Reviews: Michal Ajvaz: Other books by Michal Ajvaz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Michal Ajvaz was born in 1949.

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© 2010-2012 the complete review

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