Friday, October 26, 2007

The Other Side by Alfred Kubin

One day as I was searching around the internet minding my own business, innocent and unsuspecting of any imminent peril, I stumbled upon a webpage called The Strangest Books Ever Written. There was a list for strange fiction and a list for strange nonfiction. Right there close to the top of the strange fiction list was The Other Side by Alfred Kubin.

After a bit of research I discovered that he was an early twentieth century expressionist artist and illustrator. He had a very gloomy life to match his macabre artwork. The Other Side was the only novel he wrote and it was widely considered to be one of the most unusual and macabre books ever written.

I was hooked, so I ordered it. It was available in a new english translation by Mike Mitchell from Dedalus Books.

In the beginning of the story a mysterious stranger arrives at the Munich home of a artist and his wife. After introducing himself the stranger explains the reason for his visit.

"I am not speaking in my own name, but for a man whom you, perhaps, have forgotten, but who still remembers you well. This man has at his disposal what is by European standards, untold wealth. I am speaking of your former classmate, Claus Patera. Please do not interrupt me! By a strange chance, Patera came into possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world. Your old friend then set out upon the realization of an idea for which access to fairly inexhaustible financial resources is absolutely prerequisite. He resolved to found a dream realm. This is a complex matter, but I will be brief.

First of all a suitable tract of some 1,200 square miles was acquired. One third of the area is mountainous, the rest consists of plains and hills. A lake, a river and large forests divide up this small realm and add variety to its landscape. A city was established, villages, and farms. The latter were sorely needed as even the initial population was 12,000. The present population of the Dream Realm is 65,000."

He goes on:

"Patera, he continued, feels an extraordinarily strong aversion to all kinds of progress. To be precise, to all kinds of scientific progress. Please take this literally, for in it lies the main idea behind the Dream Realm. The Realm is shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The dream realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilization and contains everything necessary to cater to their bodily needs. It is not at all the intention of the lord of this country to create a utopia, a kind of model state for the future. Although provision has been made to ensure there are no material shortages, the whole thrust of the principal aims of this community is directed less towards the maintenance of property and goods, the population, individuals. No, definitely not! ...But I see a smile of disbelief on your lips. It is difficult I know, almost too difficult for mere words to describe what Patera hopes to achieve with his Dream Realm."

The artist and his wife think it over and decide to go. They make a very long journey to the far east ending up finally at the outer wall of the Dream Realm. They pass through the single gate and board a train that takes them across dismal swamps and forests to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Realm.

On their arrival in Pearl, they immediately discover that all is not right in the Dream Realm. To begin with the sky is always overcast. Never can you see the sun or the stars. Everything looks drab and dingy in dreary shades of greenish grey. Nothing is new here. Everything from buildings to silverware is old and worn.

We later find out that all the buildings have macabre and violent histories. Structures where horrible crimes were committed have been moved to the Dream Realm from all over the world. Even the everyday objects seem to have an unwholesome past. It seems as if an unseen force is controlling both people and events in this bizarre place.

A village adjacent to the city is the home of a tribe of blue eyed holy men who are the Dream Realms original inhabitants. These people seem all to be in a perpetual trance. We learn that Patera visited these mystics before conceiving the Dream Realm.

Things become increasingly bizarre. People start becoming violent. Murders are committed with increasing intensity. Many people die of mysterious illnesses. Plagues of insects inundate the city. Wild animals start invading the city and attacking people. Then even domesticated animals become vicious and turn on their masters.

When our hero finally does find Patera, he seems to be in a trance, and his face keeps changing into first one person then another and another until finally it seems as if faces from all over the realm and even the entire world are passing across Pateras skull.

"His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like."

Any attempt to escape from the dream realm is futile. The violence continues to escalate as the evil force controlling everything consumes the city of Pearl in a chaotic apocalypse.

The book ends with our protagonist finding the "real" world too much like the Dream Realm for comfort.

"When I ventured back into the world of the living, I discovered that my god only held half-sway. In everything, both great and small, he had to share with an adversary who wanted life. The forces of repulsion and attraction, the twin poles of the earth with their currents, the alternation of the seasons, day and night, black and white - these are battles.

Kubin adds a drawing of an eyeless morbid Patera like face on the final page with the cryptic phrase:

"The Demiurge is a hybrid."

The dystopia described in this book, published in Austria in 1906, closely predicts events that occurred in the decades following it's publication, with often uncanny and disturbing similarity.

The rise of militarism and nationalism resulting in the first and second world wars, the rise of Nazism, Hitlers omnipotent god like influence on millions, the holocaust, even the horrible final hours of der fuhrer in his bunker in Berlin are closely foreshadowed in this prophetic book.

Analogies may easily be drawn to ideas like Jung's collective subconscious, the cycles of change of taoism,and the karmic principle of hinduism and jainism, and alarmingly to events in the present.

This book is a definite must read. It should be required reading in the hope that the warning signs of violent psychosis shown by an entire society may someday be heeded preventing future bloodbaths and perhaps accomplishing homosapiens next great evolutionary step into a truly self aware being, no longer controlled by ancient demons and evil forces.

Fortunately Mike Mitchell's translation of The Other Side has recently been released in an ebook format for only ten dollars. Paperback copies are scarce and costly.


Murphy said...

Where did you get your copy of "The Other Side" and how much did you pay for it?

David X said...

I got my copy at the retail price before the publisher sold out. Dedalus is a small publisher and when they run out of a title the prices of used copies can get ridiculous.
Dedalus has just come under the sponsorship of a larger publisher and many titles like this have become available again recently. Hopefully they will reprint The Other Side soon. Just keep watching for it.

molosovsky said...

Great review. Thanks!
Just a little nitpicking. »The Other Side« was first published 1909 by Müller & Sohn Munich (Germany).

jpeery said...
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David X said...

The Other Side is now available as an kindle e-book for only 9.99.