Alfred Kubin‘s The Other Side is one of the maddest things I’ve read in a long while. It’s mad in the way that Gogol’s The Nose is mad, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. That is, at times it seems normal, almost allegorical (you begin, at least, to feel there might be some meaning behind it all), but then just as you feel you’re getting a grasp on it, it leaps off again into incomprehensible madness.
The plot? – Well, it’s this. A man is persuaded by an old schoolfriend, Patera, who has since become immensely wealthy, to come and live in a closed society he has constructed, somewhere in northern China, called the Dream Kingdom. Billed as a sort of paradise which has forsaken the modern world, when he goes there he finds it doesn’t quite measure up to expectations. He becomes increasingly uncertain how (or if) the society is being governed, can never seem to meet with his friend Patera, and – well, after that things start getting rather weird: waking dreams, doppelgangers, unexplained plagues of animals, and a complete collapse not merely of moral fabric but seemingly all kinds of fabric.
What are the themes here, the ideas? – Maybe it’s about religion and the enlightenment, the lack of a guiding spirit in the world and how man can cope with its absence, the collapse of the ruling classes and the emergence of democracy, the revaluation of all values – yeah, that sort of thing.
Here’s a random passage, where he’s trying to get to meet with Patera:
Unfortunately, every sort of thing interfered, exactly as though some devil of mischance had taken a hand. First I was told that the Master was so overloaded with business that he could see no one. Another time he had gone on a trip. Then I heard that tickets for audiences could be obtained at the Archives. I went there. I walked through the gate, decorated with coats of arms, feeling as guilty as an anarchist. The doorman was asleep. I tried to find my way alone and entered a spacious antechamber. About a dozen officials were there.
For probably a quarter of an hour, no one noticed me at all, as though I were invisible. Finally, one of the functionaries asked me gruffly what I wanted. However, he did not wait for my answer but went on conversing with his neighbour. A somewhat pleasanter character bowed to me and inquired about my business. His wrinkled yellow face fell into severe furrows, he took a few puffs at his long pipe, and then motioned with it towards the next room. “In there!”
On the door was a notice: Do not knock. Inside, a man was asleep. I had to clear my throat three times before any sign of life came into his completely rigid, deeply reflective pose. Then I was favoured with a glance of majestic disdain.
“What do you want?” he growled. “Have you a summons? What papers have you brought with you?”
Here there was not the same curtness as outside; on the contrary, information came bubbling out.
“To receive your ticket for an audience you need in addition to your birth certificate, baptismal certificate, and marriage certificate, your father’s graduation diploma and your mother’s inoculation certificate. Turn left in the corridor. Administration Room 16, and make your declaration of means, education, and honorary orders. A character witness for your father-in-law is desirable but not absolutely essential.” Whereupon he nodded condescendingly, bent once more over the desk, and began to write with, as I could see, a dry pen.
If anyone’s thinking at this point that this all sounds very similar to a highly original and revered Czech writer who happened, like Kubin, to write in German, I would point out that these similarities must be found to be false, and for this very simple reason: that this certain Czech writer was highly original – possibly the most original writer ever – certainly the first person to write about the things that he wrote about – whereas Kubin’s novel was published in 1909.
My edition comes with illustrations by the author (who, in his day job, was an avant-garde artist) and a short autobiography.