The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville (Surreal/SF novella, 2016).
This novella is a masterful, one-of-a-kind blending of such unlikely elements as the surreal movement, semi-magical technology, the Nazi fascination with the occult and good old World War Two spy intrigue. Chapters go back and forth between a group of surrealist artists (most of them actual historical figures) struggling to survive the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government in the south of France in 1941 and an alternate timeline 1950 Paris that is still a raging battleground between occupying Nazi forces and assorted bands of Resistance Fighters (plus rampaging demons from Hell and images of the surrealist movement that have somehow come to often-violent life).
The demons have been summoned by the Nazis as reluctant partners in this bewildering urban conflict. I don’t want to provide spoilers, but I will note that the chapters set in the early ’40s eventually explain how the art and writings of so many of the era’s surreal artists (visual as well as literary) were brought to sudden (and often destructive) life.
The key fictional characters here are Thibault, a Parisian fighter who has a special affinity with and ability to at least partially communicate with and control the actions of the living texts and images around him, and Sam, an American woman and secret agent of uncertain and secret loyalties. They’re forced to team up and confront a German plan (spearheaded by, among others, infamous real-life Nazi Josef Mengele). If the ultimate German Mad Scientist-type and his traitorous priest cohort have their way, the most destructive bit of art-as-kill-crazed-monster yet will be unleashed.
In addition to the short novel (running 168 pages), the book offers two bonus items. Mieville offers an Afterword entitled “On Coming to Write The Last Days of New Paris.” In this essay, he claims the book is a fictionalized account of his extended interview with a figure who crossed over from the alternate timeline to report what is claimed a true story (make of this what you may).
And in a concluding section of Notes, the author helpfully explains more about many of the surrealist artists involved here and their various works (in our timeline).
This book is a wondrous and detailed work of the imagination, which also shows the author’s impressive knowledge of the surrealist art movement. It comes complete with a climax that is at once stunning and, in context, satisfyingly inevitable. A fine book, of a very unexpected nature and I highly recommend it.