Excerpt from “Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room” by Angela Carter

The young girl found her voice at last.

“Tell me,” she said, “the answer to this problem: the Governor of Kgoujni wants to give a very small dinner party, and invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father. Find the number of guests.”*

At the sound of her voice, which was as clear as a looking-glass, everything in the curious room gave a shake and a  shudder and, for a moment, looked as if it were painted on gauze, like a theatrical effect, and might disappear if a bright light were shone on it. Dr. Dee stroked his beard reflectively. He could provide answers to many questions, or knew where to look for answers. He had gone and caught a falling starre — didn’t a piece of it lie beside the stuffed dodo? To impregnate the aggressively phallic mandrake, with its masculinity to the power of two, implied by its name, was a task which, he pondered, the omnivorous Archduke, with his enthusiasm for erotic esoterica, might prove capable of. And the answer to the other two imponderables posed by the poet were obtainable, surely, through the intermediary of the angels, if only one scried long enough.

He truly believed nothing was unknowable. That is what makes him a modern.

But, to the child’s question, he can imagine no answer.

Kelly, forced against his nature to suspect the presence of another world that would destroy his confidence in tricks, is sunk in introspection, and has not even heard her.

However, such magic as there is in this world, as opposed to the worlds that can be made out of dictionaries, can only be real when it is artificial and Dr. Dee himself, whilst a member of the Cambridge Footlights at university, before his beard was white or long, directed a famous production of Aristophanes’ Peace at Trinity College, in which he sent a grocer’s boy right up to heaven, laden with his basket as if to make deliveries, on the back of a giant beetle.

Arychtas made a flying dove of wood. At Nuremburg, according to Boterus, an adept constructed both an eagle and a fly and set them to flutter and flap across his laboratory, to the astonishment of all. In olden times, the statues that Daedalus built raised their arms and moved their legs due to the action of weights, and of shifting deposits of mercury. Albertus Magnus, the Great Sage, cast a head in brass that spoke.

Are they animate or not, these beings that jerk and shudder into such a semblance of life? Do these creatures believe themselves to be human? And if they do, at what point might they, by virtue of the sheer intensity of their belief, become so?

(In Prague, the city of the Golem, an image can come to life).

The Doctor thinks about these things a great deal and thinks the child upon his knee, babbling about the inhabitants of another world, must be a little automaton popped up from God knows where.

Meanwhile, the door marked “Forbidden” opened up again.

***

*There’s an answer given in the text, but I’m not going to include it here.

Leave a Reply