It’s been a productive year for China Miéville. The British speculative fiction author has released two novellas in 2016: This Census-Taker (read my review here) and more recently, The Last Days of New Paris. In this alternative history of World War II, Miéville makes a compelling case for the revolutionary potential of art—even if the novel’s plot and characters make for a less than compelling story.
Miéville carved out his place in modern speculative fiction by conjuring up oddball versions of our own world, or creating weird universes of his own. Whereas This Census-Taker fell roughly into the latter category, The Last Days of New Paris is clearly in the former. It tells of a Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941, in which an occult explosion changes the French capital forever: the city is immediately overrun with “manifs” (short for “manifestation”), surrealist art pieces come to life. For instance, the opening scene depicts a tandem bicycle with a live woman as a figurehead, a manif drawn from a painting by Leonora Carrington.
The disaster throws the Nazis and the various French resistance factions into disarray. A Nazi blockade seals off the city, leaving the adversaries trapped, fighting against one another and the unpredictable, frequently violent manifs. If this setting intrigues you, be warned that it is by far the best component of the novel: The plot and characters themselves fall short of Miéville’s fascinating worldbuilding.
The novella flips between “New Paris,” still sealed and dangerous in 1950, and the story of Jack Parsons, an American engineer and mystic, before the blast in 1941. The 1950 sections focus on Thibaut, a resistance fighter with the communist and surrealist group Main à Plume. He wanders alone through the streets of New Paris, fighting off manifs and struggling for survival. Eventually, Thibaut meets Sam, a capable and enigmatic American photographing manifs for a book she calls The Last Days of New Paris. Together, Thibaut and Sam investigate a sinister Nazi plot codenamed “Fall Rot.”
Years earlier, Jack Parsons is on his way to an occult convergence in Prague when he runs afoul of the Nazi bureaucracy. He falls in with a group of avant-garde artists in Marseilles and eventually is a catalyst for events leading to the detonation of the Surrealism bomb. The real-life Parsons was a disciple of the famous occultist Aleister Crowley as well as an engineer instrumental in the development of rocketry. In the novel he clashes with the Surrealists for their boorish attitude towards non-artists and their feckless, largely symbolic resistance to the Nazis. Parsons, on the other hand, hopes to use some of the power of Surrealism to deal a blow against Germany. Miéville portrays Parsons as an energetic, magical manipulator excited to bring his esoteric brand of freedom to Europe. His segments are an unexpected pleasure, captivating and sometimes humorous.
Miéville is also to be praised for his use of history within his fictional world. This is one of the first times Miéville has experimented with historical fantasy set outside Britain, and he’s done his research: a cast of historical figures fills the novella. These include major figures like Andre Breton and Josef Mengele as well as lesser-known politicians and artists of the time. For instance, Robert Alesch, a priest who collaborated with the Germans in real life, becomes head of a new Church of Paris, Nazi-sponsored and Satan-worshipping. In fact, just about everyone important other than Thibaut and Sam has a real-life analog.
Miéville packed a lot of ideas and content into a novella less than 200 pages long. Does this mishmash of Surrealism and history actually serve to create a decent novella? Yes, but with some caveats. First, despite the incredible imagery of New Paris, the plot that takes place within is largely forgettable. Thibaut’s travels are mainly an excuse to give us a broad portrait of New Paris, to see its manifs and warring factions. Even within this guided tour, Miéville’s creativity overshadows his characterization: neither Thibaut nor Sam emerge as three-dimensional characters. However, while Thibaut’s high-strung, bitter personality does not endear him to us, he does seem like the kind of beat-down, washed-up radical that might haunt the streets of occupied Paris.
Second, there is a large facet of the novella’s worldbuilding that feels too pulpy: Namely, that the Nazis have summoned demons from Hell to fight the French and the manifs. There are a couple of amusing anecdotes involving Hell: The demons are homesick and unnerved by the Paris around them, and it is strongly implied that the Congress for Cultural Freedom—a real anti-Communist advocacy group active from 1950 to 1979—was created by Hell’s intelligence apparatus. (In reality, the Congress was founded by the CIA. Art imitating life, perhaps?) Miéville uses Hell in The Last Days of New Paris to comment on Faustian deals. It’s not a theme without merit, but the demon-related parts of the novella still come off as over-the-top and superfluous. It’s hard to take seriously a line like, “Hell doesn’t want to risk open war with Germany.”
The novella falls prey to one of Miéville’s shortcomings as an author: his insistence on having a grandiose battle at the climax of his narratives. The final confrontation in The Last Days of New Paris is particularly out of place. While the antagonist in this fight is a surprising and interesting choice, the whole thing still feels like a poorly-implemented surprise final boss battle in a video game. Combined with an ending that feels rushed overall, this makes for a weak closing act.
The silver lining is an intriguing afterword, in which Miéville describes meeting the man who ostensibly told him this true story. Miéville muses on New Paris’ potential proximity to our own universe, and adds, hopefully, that “some understanding of the nature of the manifs of New Paris, of the source and power of art and manifestation, may be of some help to us, in times to come”. In this way, Miéville recovers from the poor ending of the novella proper while gesturing at the revolutionary potential of art for fighting oppression.
It is fair to say that this theme is the most developed and concrete in the novella. Thibaut makes this clear in one of the novella’s great lines: “We refuse to flee poetry for reality … But we refuse to flee reality for poetry.” In other words, art, even weird, Surrealist art, can be used in the real world as a weapon against reaction and fascism. Conversely, Miéville fires plenty of shots at fascist art: The manifs that the Nazis conjure are almost useless, their stifled art lacking the dazzling creativity of their leftist counterparts. Multiple times throughout the novel, characters mock Hitler’s inability to paint. This art-as-revolution idea is unsurprising coming from Miéville, who was a long-time member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, a Trotskyist organization in the United Kingdom.
The Main à Plume in The Last Days of New Paris share the Trotskyist dream of world revolution. Thibaut and Sam even make common cause with a manif known as the exquisite corpse, inspired by a surrealist method of collaborative drawing. This manif is revolution and Surrealism united and personified. The corpse, and art in general, serve here as a way of imagining a better, more humane future. With the rise of reactionary nationalism today, Miéville’s prediction that art “may be of some help to us, in times to come,” rings true.
China Miéville creates a fascinating world in The Last Days of New Paris, but not a fascinating narrative. But no matter: the city itself is the star of the show. And as with all great fictional worlds, we are drawn to think deeply about the setting, to ponder deeply the politics and imagery of New Paris.
Photo: Barry Lewis / Wikimedia Commons