Because my review for The Other City turned out so long, I decided to leave out one clever detail from the book that I initially wanted to discuss. But since it's my blog and since I had the inspiration to institute the footnotes & reviews system for situations such as this, there's nothing stopping me from discussing it separately. So here it is.
It's about music. We discussed previously about how the other city has a weird language that has the same words like ours but seems to be incomprehensible gibberish otherwise. As you read, the temptation to find hidden meanings in every sentence is very strong. The narrator describes this impulse so well when he says
I had encountered the words and gestures of the inhabitants of the other city, the screeches of its creatures, and the stiff poses of its statues like a hieroglyphic text, whose shapes from time to time have been penetratingly and almost painfully cut through by the incandescent discharge of unifying meaning, but every time it had been extinguished before I managed to grasp it.
But it's not only the language that is obscure. Music itself is different in the other city. (Does music qualify as a language? I'm not sure.) When the narrator first hears it, at the end of a religious service in a subterranean church of the other city, he describes it as "a monotonous tinkling" that "maybe (...) was supposed to be music." And then, when people sing, this is what it sounds like to him, not so much music as noise:
The worshipers (...) started to sing a long drawn-out wordless melody in which I could detect no rhythm or system, and which most resembled the random sounds of wind shaking tin window seals on winter evenings. I listened to the strange song and waited to see if anything else would happen, but there was simply the sound of that formless singing, just unending intonements of a single note, after which the melody would abruptly rise or fall and remain fixed once more into a long single note. The singing was putting me to sleep (...).
In the absence of a rhythm or system, this is barely recognizable as music. This is at the end of chapter 3. At the end of chapter 5, after hearing some stories about the other city and chasing the marble streetcar that takes people away from the normal world, the narrator is in a garden. He hears a "magical music to which [he] felt irresistibly drawn." He follows it and discovers that what he took to be liturgical singing was actually a piece of tin roof shaken by the wind. Like the music in the subterranean church, the sound is soporific.
What is so nice about these two episodes is how they illustrate the constant search for meaning and structure, applied even to music. Seeing that the music in the garden was only his mind attributing intentionality where there was none should make the narrator doubt that there is any meaning to be found in the other city as well. (It doesn't.) But seeing how this sound was very similar to the one he heard in the church and yet this time he immediately recognized it as music instead of random noise, how his mind imposed an intentional pattern on nature on the basis of a prior experience, should perhaps make us, readers, wonder about the source of all demarcations like those between language and nonsense, music and noise. Is familiarity the only difference between what we are willing to accept as music and what we deem to be noise?