“The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing blindly.”
Paris, 1950: the city lies blockaded by Nazi forces. Nine years prior, an explosive detonated and loosed chaos upon the city. But not any chaos—demons and surrealist manifestations (“manifs” for short) now roam the streets. While the international community condemns the Nazi occupation, it remains secretly grateful that the Nazis have contained the situation. No manifs and demons in, no manifs and demons out. The contagion won’t spread.
Welcome to New Paris, the setting of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris, released in August from Del Rey. The book’s main character, Thibaut, roams the 9th arrondissement, the surrealist district, while the Nazis and their demon allies live in the 10th. He’s the last remaining survivor of the Main à plume, a surrealist resistance force he joined after Nazis slaughtered his parents. As a perfect recruit, Thibaut’s surrealist intuitions allow him to fire his weapons “automatically.” Direct assault on the surreal yields nothing. Instead, you have to shoot blindly, unconsciously.
Miéville is a master world-builder with leftist politics, but his work isn’t polemical. His perspective is, “Yeah, that’s in there if you want, but also look at this cool monster way.” The Last Days of New Paris comes straight from that formula. The idea behind the book is almost too good, but the world he creates is transfixing—and horrifying—enough that a sympathetic reader can forgive him:
Weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks. They cosset the skeletons of the fallen. Huge sunflowers root all over, and the grass underfoot is speckled with plants that did not exist until the blast: plants that make noise; plants that move. Lovers’ flowers, their petals elliptical eyes and throbbing cartoon hearts bunched alternatively in the mouths of up-thrust snakes that are their stems, that sway and stare as Thibaut warily passes.
Strange trees reach into the sky and rip from the clouds Allied and Wermacht craft alike. Table-wolf hybrids snap at characters’ feet as they flee. This is surreal, naturally, but is it so far from everyday life?
At the climax of The Last Days of New Paris, Thibaut faces down a Hitler manif the Nazis have summoned from real-life Hitler’s self-portrait. This is meant to be the Nazis’ ultimate weapon, a way to secure their hold on New Paris and, likely, what remains of Europe lives in their thrall. The Hitler manif turns whatever it looks at into tidy urban watercolors (even Nazi troops).
A little blank-faced nonentity bringing peace and prettiness, ending the rubble. Where there is discord, there it brings peace. Not even of death, but of nihil. Paris will be an empty city of charming houses. This is what the Fuhrer’s self-portrait proclaims.
This attempt to “paint over” destruction on behalf of some poetic vision is the lie endemic to powerful regimes (and strikes one as aesthetically congruent with American visions of suburbia). Consider our attempt to “bring freedom” to Iraq and our War on Terror. Or the Israeli military’s (IDF) failed attempt at weaponizing post-modern philosophy, which took inspiration from the work of leftist critical theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to “smooth out” the space of the combat zone by boring holes through Palestinian homes. Now we have ISIS, who use our drone operations as a major recruiting tool, while the smoothed out space the IDF created was in turn used against it by the local population, a catastrophic failure for the Israeli military. But if dangerous dreams of a purified world belong to oppressive regimes, they can also belong the oppressed.
On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers detonated explosives in Casablanca. Yachine, a fictional perpetrator of the attack, narrates Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God from the afterlife. The novel rolls out its narrative through a series of introductions—to Yachine, then his brother Hamid, then Nabil, then Fuad. In the background Sidi Moumen, a squalid slum, looms like a plagueland, hemming in the lives of its inhabitants:
[New arrivals] become part of the landscape, like the mountain of sewage, like the makeshift shelters, built of mud and spit, topped by satellite dishes like gigantic upturned ears. They’re here and they dream. They know the grim reaper is lurking, and that those who’ve given up dreaming will be first to go. But they are not going to die. They stick together; they support each other. Disease lies in wait, they can see it, can smell it. They defy it. Hunger may well stretch out its tentacles, gripping throats till they choke, but in Sidi Moumen it does not kill, because people share what little they have. Because they look to each other to measure their common distress. Tomorrow, it will be so-and-so’s turn. The day after, someone else’s. The wheel turns so fast. Between little and nothing lie a few crumbs, blown away by the merest breath.
If everything around you wrests dignity from your person, you may decide to fight back—but in order to fight back you must believe you have dignity, contrary to all external evidence. This is where men like Abu Zoubeir come to the fore. Their “heaven belts” and divine promises resolve this paradox. And Zoubeir’s influence works heavy medicine on young men who have just grievances and no good future prospects. From the novel’s outset we know that Zoubeir lures the boys in with radical, Salafi jihadist teachings to groom them for martyrdom. Yachine describes the impact of Zoubeir’s influence:
He’d given us back our pride with simple words, winged words that carried us as far as our imaginations could go. No longer were we parasites, the dregs of humanity, less than nothing. We were clean and deserving and our aspirations resonated with healthy minds. We were listened to, guided. Logic had taken the place of beatings. We had opened the door to God and He had entered into us. No more chasing around frantically, expending pointless energy, no more insults and stupid brawling. No more living like cockroaches on the excrement of heretics [...] We knew that rights weren’t given, they had to be seized. And we were ready for any sacrifice.
It’s easy to see the appeal in Zoubeir’s message when you consider that Yachine grew up salvaging dreck from the dump where he helped Hamid bury a boy he murdered with his bare hands. When Yachine’s parents live hobbled by disease, hunger, and hard living. When his best friends pass the days red-eyed with rings of glue around their mouths. When it seems too clear that nothing like a political right has emerged to grant refuge from the grinding juggernaut of poverty, who wouldn’t want to seize the one right that seems possible—to die standing, fists balled before your enemies?
“I will take revenge on those people who plundered your childhood and trampled your dreams in the dirt. I will make them pay an eye for an eye for the years of slavery they have made us endure. They will suffer as we have suffered.” This is not so unlike Thibaut’s resistance fighter ethos, and a promise of heaven makes brave those who have seen much of hell. But these lies come back to haunt their perpetrators, as seen in how Yachine laments from the other side of our quivering world, unable to make it to paradise.
These novels shed light on the present, but their greatest contribution lies in revealing that our current moment is not alien to history entire. Wars are largely waged on behalf of dreams of safety and fear of threats—real or perceived. This is war’s public face. We hazard ourselves with fear; we have too much, or too little, to lose.