Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oakland—review by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor
Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.
In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”
But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…
See PROLOGUE 1 here.
When I was a little girl, the blue light entranced me. Eager, I would ask my mother, “Is it today we go?” She would say, “No, we went yesterday. You know it’s every other day that we go.” The next morning, annoyed, she’d say, “Yes, it is today.”
We always went by city bus, a drab grey one, and I would be furious that we were stopped by the traffic lights and bus stops, that people were getting off so slowly, and then others were getting on… we’d never get there.
The hospital, at last. The final hurdles between me and the blue light are the crowds in the overfull corridors and the chatty nurses, exchanging whispers with Mother while they stroke my hair. We climb up to the second floor, and at the landing in the stairwell gleams milky glass, divided into little squares. We open the squeaky double door and step into the little waiting room, most often empty and filled with the fresh scent of a recently mopped floor, a fragrance I have since then always associated with hospitals. My mother sometimes kisses my hair, sometimes not, gestures to the wooden bench, identical to the benches in the park of conifers around the hospital, and says, ritually, “I’ll be waiting for you here.”
I thought it was a sign.
All one summer, every clear evening, I stepped out of the house. Before that I’d watch the sky from the living room: when the light filled and swelled the window frames and the undulating shadows of the curtains had climbed from floor to wall, the sun was down low enough. I would throw my jacket over my shoulders because my mother was strict about me going out in the evening without a jacket on and I’d slip out of the house. The front door is hinged on the wrong side—the wrong side, at least, for me—so I wouldn’t catch sight immediately of what it was I longed to see. In the front yard I’d be greeted by dusk and chill air. The dark was already conquering the hedge and the depths of two young pine trees, growing by the front gate. Mountain peaks—under snow for months and now bare and intersected by a thin mist stretching out in waves—and there above them, the moon barely visible. The farther they are from me, the deeper the bluish tinge of the mountains, and the sky, in contrast, gradually pales, giving me the impression that the earth and sky merge just short of the horizon.
Tickets for America
I am walking down the street
someone is following me
the heart is beating
it is dark
no one around
dread all over
I start to run
the front door is locked
I ring the intercom
just so I am not standing still
such a town