Sunday, 3 May 2020


It's Paris, 1950, the Second World War is still being fought and Resistance fighters battle the Nazis, in a guerrila war punctuated by the appearance of surrealist artworks come to bizarre and seemingly uncontrollable life. The French call them 'manifestations' or 'manifs' for short—jumping ahead almost two decades in our universe for the word meaning demonstrations. Our hero in The Last Days Of New Paris is Thibault, still only 24, but 'before the war he had already committed' to the surrealists, and now he prowls the ruined streets of the city, in woman's night-clothes that turn out to have their own less than surreal purpose. Thibault has the mentality to be able to interact with the manifs, and with things the Germans are also trying to conjure up, on their own terms. As much as this be possible.

How did this come to be? In a parallel story-line, we follow an American, Jack Parsons, a follower of a different sort of arts, a disciple of Alistair Crowley, in the south of France, where he encounters Varian Fry, the American consul who helped many of the avant-garde to safety via Spain, and through him Andre Breton. Fry's is one of the most fascinating stories of the war, and of its aftermath in modern art (I wrote about him for the FT, and I will publish that piece here shortly). Parsons is an engineer, and his idea is to somehow harness the energy of these most modern of artists, and create a Golem who could help defeat the Nazis. Think of James Whale's Frankenstein crossed with the Pandora's Box of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Or something else, because nothing here translates easily.

China Mieville has created a world whose images do their inspirations proud, something easy to overlook as each new manif we meet captures our imaginations. But it's necessary they act in a setting which, in its own manic destructiveness, has its own logic. There is an element of the super-hero comic to it, powers arise we didn't know existed to resolve situations, but in general there isn't that much deus ex machina to the story, and there is a lot of pure humanity. Not least from the manif most central to the tale, The Exquisite Corpse created by Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, who turns out to be the most human character of them all.

Thibaut teams up with an American photographer, Sam, who is something of a Lee Miller, but turns out to be something more than that. She is being hunted by the Germans, because she understands what they are up to. And what they are up to, in the end, is resolved in artistic terms that come as a massive surprise that as soon as its revealed seems absolutely the inevitable result, and indeed cause, of what is going on, and is itself a wonderful metaphor for the relative powerlessness of art in terms of effect on the world.

I read The Last Days Of New Paris on a weekend away in The Hague and Amsterdam, which was a perfect way to stretch it out and to put it into context of the works I was seeing at the wonderful museums. It was surprisingly easy to let the mind go in the hands of Mieville's imagination, though the setting was never going to move from Paris. Brilliant fun.

The Last Days Of New Paris by China Mieville
Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9781447296546

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