In today’s review I take a closer look at a jewel of Czech science fiction and fantasy.
The House of a thousand floors (DUM O TISICI PATRECH) is a science-fiction novel by Jan Weiss, from the year 1929.
A man awakens with amnesia at the foot of a huge stairway. He has just emerged from some kind of body horror nightdream and has no conception who or where he is. The staircase has only blank walls around it so the man has no choice but to proceed up and up indefinitely. Finding no way out after ascending dozens of floors, he finds in his pocket a notebook from which he learns that his name is Brok (which means “pellet” in czech , we will find out why later) and that he has a mission to accomplish.
He has been given one month invisibility by the World Government’s Secret Service, during which he must explore the House of a thousand floors and recover the beautiful Princess Tamara abducted for the harem of the almighy Muller, the architect and hidden ruler of this colossal house.
Meeting a strange blind stonecutter on his way up, he learns more about this intriguing skyscrapper.
He is just at the beginning of his quest through this gigantic Babel tower populated by all classes of people amalgated there by Muller. Each group of floors contains entire town districts housing various aspects of human activities : industrious compounds, seedy brothels in back alleys, stock exchanges in upscale neighbourhood, exotic playgrounds, even urban guerilla in the upper floors trying to topple the government of this mad private universe. Like an almighty peeping Tom, the unapproachable Mulller observes and controls everyone and everything in his world, except the invisible Brok.
Brok sets out to uncover the secret of this delirious House which Muller wants to keep building up to the sky. We must remember that the book dates from 1929, so this “art deco” parallel world with its crazy machines, architecture and gadgetry has a steampunk flavour before its time.
In the House of a thousand floors thrives a luxuriant society where a surreal capitalism is pushed to the limits of absurdity : we see a gigantic roulette game where the players place bets on entire continents or countries, a lottery offering intersideral cruises to prize winners who finally end up as manipulated guinea pigs. Weiss renders finely every minor detail. A futuristic movie house is using poor addicts to broadcast hardcore shows through a contraption connected to their eyes. In a sinister anticipation of the extermination camps, a crematory company advertizes for the painless suppression of all disabled people from their town district.
Pursued by the grotesque henchmen of Muller, the invisible Brok is greeted as a liberator by insane crowds of revolutionaries and finds himself entangled in a strange love scene with Princess Tamara, the whole thing spiced up by his invisibility.
Deftly written, the novel makes fine use of a range of experimental styles and techniques. At times, linear storytelling gives way to a collage of incongruous elements : excerpts from fictitious books, encyclopedia articles, radio broadcasts transcripts are used as shortcuts to describe places or events ; other narrative ingredients include fanciful advertisements, ludicrous administrative documents or political slogans which highlight the idiosyncrasies of this decadent world.
Another stylistic device is the use of the recurrent nightmare that befalls Brok in always shorter intervals ; he sees himself in a stinking place with bodies piled up around him and a red hot triangle flaring above him. Each times he awakes, a new turn in the action takes place, leading Brok to different quarters in the House.
Eventually Brok reaches the secret heart of the House of a thousand floors ; Muller’s private quarters are entered through a musical bridge vibrating with a melody customized for each visitor. Brok traverses a series of rooms each one more insane than the others : a huge crystal where a living heart is beating on a plate, a conservatory where human faces are kept intact and ready to be worn, a strange Ali Baba cavern and at long last, the inner sanctum of Muller. To his amazement Brok enters a sort of nursery complete with childish toys.
In front of a huge organ-like control desk sits Muller himself, looking halfway between a child and an incredibly old dwarf. And now comes the final confrontation between this mad demiurge and his invisible opponent. Muller tries to entice Brok : “You have discovered my secret, but I know who you really are”. Dodging a treacherous slash, Brok has to stab Muller to defend himself. As Muller lays dying, the House of a thousand floors begins to crumble and to bury Brok.
Brok suddenly awakens from what appears to have been a long fever dream and realizes he is a wounded soldier, emerging from sleep in a world war I lazaret bed. The reality was a dream and even the hate-figure of Muller was a figment of his imagination.
Jan Weiss explores imaginatively what was then the unnown continent of dreams and of subconscious identity. He was a countryman of Franz Kafka and delighted in analysing uncompromisingly the futility of man’s efforts against the anonymous forces which are shaping and ruling mankind. The dream thematic is here ambiguous : while the inhabitants of the House of a thousand floors are puppets controled by a demiurgic dictator, the evil figure of Muller and the detestable pleasures he draws from his private world are nothing but a dream of Brok. While Brok himself was thought by Muller to be nothing more than one of his many creatures…so who was real ?
- Hugh ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow