Monday 2 July 2018

Recommend: literary places

In many stories, place is so important that it is almost a character: think of the number of science fiction or fantasy novels where the name of the city is in the title of the book itself (even leaving aside City of Illusions, The City and the City, City of Brass…). In this month’s installment of our recommendation post series, we’re asking readers to tell us about their favorite literary place—fictional, fantastic, or a real place given new life in literature, what place do you wish existed (or are you glad doesn’t); what place feels more real than home? To prime the pump, we’ve asked a few authors, editors and other friends the same question, and their suggestions are below. If any of these inspire you—or you’re disappointed your favorite isn’t mentioned—please leave a comment telling us about a literary place you think is worth visiting.

Vanessa Fogg (blog, twitter)

Sofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was a revelation to me. This rich, strange, gorgeously written book introduces readers to a secondary fantasy world which is not based on medieval Europe, but which draws, instead, from Africa and the Middle East. The main character, Jevick, is a naïve young man who falls in love from afar with the Empire of Olondria and then journeys through it, getting into plenty of trouble along the way.

Yet despite the wonders of Olondria, it’s Jevick’s homeland of the Tea Islands which affects me most deeply. The Tea Islands, a tropical land of heavy rains and blue hills, of rivers and jungles and “shimmering deltas, the dank-smelling lagoons, a landscape flat and liquid and loved by birds.” A world rendered with such naturalistic detail that it feels utterly real. The Tea islands was my first encounter with a fantasy world set in the tropics. And that has a special resonance for me because my parents came from a tropical country, although in Southeast Asia (Thailand), not Africa. Samatar’s book made me think, “I want to do this, too. I also want to create secondary world fantasy set in a non-European world.” Her book is one of the few that has truly changed my approach to writing.

Subodhana Wijeyeratne (Hulks; Stone Lotus)

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. So goes Mervyn Peake's description of one of the most fascinating and compelling creations in modern fantasy: the endless and darkened reaches of the city-castle of Gormenghast. The story of his trilogy's protagonist, Titus Groan, unfolds amidst its ancient and dreary halls. Teeming with a sort of madness that seems to inhabit the walls of the place, as well as the characters themselves, it is a creation that for sheer aesthetic power should, in my opinion, be up there with Middle Earth.

Peake was raised in China for a while, and was heavily influenced by the monuments erected by an ancient kingdom in the vicinity of his childhood home. The central conceit of Gormenghast derives from the feelings these buildings evoked. Timeless, ancient, and melancholy, they were on one hand magnificent. Yet on the other they also seemed to chain the present to a lost past by their very presence, to crush the now with the knowledge of the vast reaches of the then. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm, writes Peake, of Titus Groan's birth—but it could be of anyone's.

Urša Vidic (Dalmatian elves)

The city of Armilla is composed entirely of water pipes. Young people might think of a computer game or an old screensaver, but the town itself is much more emotional than that, it has all the colours of metal and a fresh wind whistling and piping on the pipes that are filled with very tangible water. It is not clear if the city is something that remained from the past or a place that was built for the future, but now it is inhabited by water creatures, by nymphs and naiads. They always knew very well how to travel along underground veins and so they feel quite at home in these pipelines that are so full of living water and surprising inventions. Before they moved here, they might have been offended, since people misused water so terribly, so it is possible that the city was built for them as a sculpture to apologize and express a newly-found veneration for them, or they were the ones who have simply driven out all the people. We learn of this place from one of the stories that Marco Polo told Kublai Khan and of course he was lying, but you never know with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Damien Krsteski (blog; Faster Tomorrow)

Aurora, a moon in the Tau Ceti planetary system, humanity's second attempt at a home from Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant novel, ended up being more than a science-fictional escape for me; when the book came out, I’d just moved to another country, and lying on the mattress in the middle of my empty, freshly-painted apartment—my suitcase in a corner, waiting to be unpacked—I had only Freya and her Ship for company.

And Aurora didn’t turn out to be their promised land. It bristled, and it made the humans sick, and ultimately it shook them off. Freya decided to return home. Because, she realized, there is no such thing as a home away from home: there is only home, and away from home.

When Freya ended her journey back on Earth, I closed the book and left my apartment to walk this foreign city, and I couldn’t help seeing daubs and smears of Aurora everywhere around me: the strange, the new, scaring me off. In time I began pining for Freya’s imagined Earth, too, safe and inviting, but as I adapted to my new surroundings, Aurora and Earth merged and winked out, and I started appreciating—liking, even—where I was, and soon I realized there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

Hella Grichi (blog; twitter)

A place which would be really cool to visit nowadays is Gilead. There would be something so fascinating and empowering to see the boatless rivers and the bloodstains on the walls being scrubbed by handmaids from yesterday’s executions, something so haunting about the dangling corpses and the limited stock at the supermarket. Maybe it would feel so good to know that, now, going home means facing the spouse you chose who will rock you softly to sleep to your favorite movie or curl up with you and two books that you recently bought at the bookshop with the octagonal window covered in evergreens. How enchanting to know you can visit a doctor that shakes your hand, wear the dress with the fox patterns and kiss the girl you like, sitting next to her at school and doing your homework together. Gilead is a dystopian world that is unfathomable for us but if we do not stay alert and raise our fists in anger, maybe we’ll soon enough don green, red and blue robes and remember days at the beach and trips to the doctor as a remote memory of days impossible to retrieve in a world as sterile as the uterus of a commander’s wife.

Valeria Vitale (TFF bio; City of a Thousand Names)

The city of Prague described by Czech writer Leo Perutz in By Night, under the Stone Bridge probably has a lot in common with the actual capital of Czechia, but they are not the same thing. Perutz’s Prague is a place where, especially at night, the boundaries between past and present, reality and dreams become softer, and as easy to cross as one of the city’s streets or bridges. The buildings are still impregnated with the memories of things that (may have) happened centuries ago, especially during the few years when the melancholic and bizarre Emperor Rudolph had moved the capital of the Holy Roman Empire to Prague. In this Prague it wouldn’t be strange to meet angels, golems, powerful rabbis, or dodgy astrologers, still roaming the streets of their city. Perutz’s book is a collection of interconnected stories, all revolving around a city that, in my imagination, is surrounded by an aura of mystery and magic. I have never been to Prague, the real one, but somehow I feel like I have already met the statues on the Carlo Bridge, and that I could navigate the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter without getting lost. Sometimes I even think that I should never actually go to Prague, and keep enjoying only her ghostly and enchanted literary reflection.

Now we want to hear from you! Please tell us about your favorite literary place in the comments.


Anonymous said...

The Wood Between the Worlds has always been one of my favorites. Very calm, full of possibilities.

Djibril said...

I didn't write a suggestion this time because I was torn between recommending Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial, the fantastical-cum-magical realist history of a nonexistent but eternal empire, and Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia, the forgotten, forbidden town in a demilitarized zone between the US and Mexico, and the repressed but progressive people who live there.