& Irva. The Twins who Saved a City
In his first novel, Observatory Mansions (2001), Edward Carey organised human relationships within a house, the lodgers of which were all characterized by physical and mental oddity. The narrator obsessively stored items he stole from his fellow human beings; his determination to wear gloves illustrated his love / hate relationship with the rest of mankind. The book was illustrated by the author and ended with a list of the 996 objects that constituted his "exhibition of love." Edward Carey's second novel, Alva & Irva. The Twins who Saved a City, bears a close resemblance to the first one both thematically and æsthetically; only, this time, the scale is larger and the structure more complex.
Alva, the bolder of the twin sisters, tells the story of their lives: how they were born in a family devoted to collecting—their father's collection of stolen foreign stamps caused his death—and scale modelling—their grandfather "talk[s] to his collection of matchstick buildings" —, and how they gradually grew apart because Alva wanted to discover the world whereas Irva would neither talk nor go out of their home. Obviously, the twins are meant to embody contrasting attitudes to the world, one eagerly walking its streets and taking pictures for the other to create a plasticine model, called Alvairvalla, of Entralla, the fictitious city they never leave.
Alva strives to merge with her environment, hence the branding of flesh with cartographic patterns, from the mole on the face of the twins' mother which is "by some surely meaningful coincidence the exact shape of [their] city" , to the map of the whole world which Alva has tattooed over her adolescent body: "I had the world inserted into my skin" . The numerous variations on that motif sometimes bring forth disturbingly far-fetched images, such as when the unusually tall twins are referred to as "storeys upon storeys of the skyscrapers of Alva and Irva" , or disappointingly trite images, like the hidden items kept by the postmen in their lockers: Alva stores maps, Postman Pirin "his magazines of naked women"  and Postman Olt "women's clothing, tights and bras and panties and stuff all folded up." However, it mostly results in pleasantly incongruous evocations, such as when the twins' father, a postman like most of their family, refuses to soil the stamps by franking them and is assigned to licking and sticking them onto envelopes, which triggers off erotic musings in both their parents, at that time hardly more than strangers:
The narrative which could be very abstract with its emphasis on mapping and representation, is surprisingly sensual, since Alva equates her greed for the world with "another type of hunger" :
Sensuality and the tactile grasping of the world helps in understanding it:
The plasticine model of the city is therefore meant to represent the mediating function of any form of representational art. Plasticine Alvairvalla is expected to prove a perfect world, a "very practicable utopia" , "an ideal city of perfect balance between left and right, north and south, east and west. Each half of the street was a mirror of the other half and each street had an identical street on the other side of the city" . Yet, Alva increasingly rejects the very notion of identity and strives to assert her difference. When, at the age of sixteen, she draws on her forehead with her school compass "the letter 'N' for 'North' " , she is both attempting to differentiate herself from her twin sister and to negotiate her own relationship to the world, "As if [she] were a compass" . That violent attempt at idiosyncrasy draws the reader's attention to the possible cause of the twins' failure: torn between exact identity and radical opposition, they are entrapped within a binary conception of the world: "Above and below. High and low. Everywhere and nowhere. Upside and downside. Forwards and backwards. Outwards and inwards. Outside and inside. Over and under. Alva and Irva" . They keep trying to reduce the world to its perfectly mastered and coinciding replica, almost similar to Borgès's map of the size of the landscape it represents: "a whole city in a street" , Alva exclaims in triumph. Both fail to acknowledge the impossible nature of the task, due to the intrinsic changeability of the world: "the city kept on changing, challenging us to keep up, old houses would be knocked down and new houses would be built on streets we had already completed. And so we would have to study the street again, add the new buildings. The city kept on changing, it wouldn't keep still" . However eccentric and comical, Alva & Irva deals with the anguish of the human condition.
Accumulating replicas of the world is at one and the same time an inspiring passion and a curse, the twins becoming the flesh and blood repository of humanity's gains as well as its waste :
Their house, increasingly packed with plasticine houses and streets:
is very much like Carey's accumulative style; enumeration is a literary device he prizes above all others. Typically, the evocation of the stolen letter that caused the downfall of the twins' father begins with a list of the letters that did not:
One more unnoticed missing letter, from Zurich, Switzerland, is added to the list before the fatal one from Vienna, Austria, which was reported missing and led to his arrest. Edward Carey's mock-encyclopedic style fits his endeavour to explore every nook and cranny of the real world, and to map every fictional possibility.
and anatomy are key themes in Carey's work; it could even be argued
that it is concerned with the anatomy of life itself, as the image
of the divided city after the earthquake suggests: "This bisected
residence was reminiscent of dolls' houses that open down the centre,
revealing the rooms and their contents in two equal halves"
. In Edward Carey's fiction of reflections, the anatomy of
life is bound to be an anatomy of art. Paradoxically, the earthquake
that destroys the city of Entralla makes its model alive and potent,
since it serves as the guideline according to which the actual city
is rebuilt, life finally imitating the piece of art which previously
represented it. As the duplicates of Entralla proliferate, "Enlarged
photographs of the plasticine old city were placed on stands throughout
the actual old city" , the frontier between life and art
becomes blurred: "Has ever a city been so legible?" 
the author of the guide to Entralla wonders. Indeed, the novel constantly
questions the art / life simile with such images as Penelope-like
Irva postponing the moment when her work / life ends: "The
closer we came to finishing the more desperate she grew. To slow
down our process still further she would secretly destroy buildings
and blame it on the mice" . The reader is caught up in
a dazzling maze of thought-provoking analogies. Alva & Irva
provides a map of the fictional city depicted in the narrative;
it is divided into parts, subparts and interludes, all of which
open with a photograph of the plasticine city made by Carey himself;
the dust-jacket even shows the author contemplating his sculpture
of the twins and their model city, so that the reader is hard-pressed
to tell whether the photographs illustrate the narrative or whether
the whole narrative glosses the city's replica. Similarly, Alva's
narrative which apparently embeds extracts from the guide book to
Entralla after its restoration is in fact edited by the guide's
author. Alva & Irva is not exactly a page-turner, its
charm is far more insidious and quizzical: the reader shuts the
book amazed at having enjoyed the trip to such an unremarkable place
as middle-of-nowhere Entralla so much and, perhaps, also wondering
whether Edward Carey might not have let himself be ensnared in the
same binary scheme that caused his twins' downfall.