The further away I get from this book (I finished it a few weeks ago) the more I realize its gravity. I love this book. Love. It took me reading two more books, both tainted by their lack of being his, to recover my reading equilibrium; an equilibrium I’ll gladly sacrifice upon his next publication. I rehashed this review this last week, leaving in much self indulgence that I cut for size consideration – my original is on Unity Books’ website.
The City & The City by China Miéville
The geography of a city holds discrete realities for wildly diverse peoples. Many of these realities differ so dramatically it’s hard to reconcile their shared space – Do you see the same city as me? Which streets do you turn your gaze from? Which areas are fearfully skirted around or avoided altogether? There are entire sections of our urban topography that we not only ignore, but would deny knowledge of entirely: brothels, drug dens, parliament, high-class restaurants – pick the enclosure and align the bias. It’s an elision done easily, with a minimum of thought or reflection. But what if we applied our thinking strategically instead of tactically? What if we picked half a city and, with dedicated deliberation, unsaw them, edited them from our physical existence? There, but not. This is the realm China Miéville’s The City & The City explores to startling effect; it’s a novel drenched in originality and seething with powerful ideas.
Ostensibly a detective novel set in an imagined corner of Europe The City and The City plumbs the essence of physical and intellectual relationships. The eponymous dual city-state of Ul-Qoma and Besźel are intimately bound by history and territory, yet severed by law and the will of their respective inhabitants. It is an ethereal amputation difficult to describe; no walls or fences curtail the inhabitants, no watchtowers or searchlights guard against transgressions, yet incursions are swiftly and coldly punished by the inscrutable and all-powerful Breach, the nigh invisible agency that polices the divide. Contradictions abound in this byzantine setting as punitive force and civil complicity meet in a lovingly constructed artifice, one deeply laced with meaning.
On the Besźel side of this labyrinthine architecture Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, investigates the murder of a woman, an assignment that appears routine but soon escalates in complexity. Borlú is drawn into a nexus of political, social and historical events that threaten not only the lives of those involved, but the cultural foundations that allow the coexistence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma. As the plot unfolds Miéville faithfully adheres to the genre rules of detective novels, not indulging easy cheats and always remaining loyal to the strictures and traditions that produce intriguing and compelling stories. And, regardless of concept, The City & The City would stand as a riveting and fully realised contribution to the crime oeuvre, but the beauty of this book is in the further steps taken: Miéville injects ideas into this novel that transform it into another beast altogether.
The core idea is the unique existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma; cities whose citizens could, through tangled borders and shared streets, easily speak or touch. Their potential interactions are constrained by tradition and law. And Breach, the all-powerful agency that’s constrained by arcane points of law. But the twin populace doesn’t simply ignore the other, they unsee and unsense, editing their existence to enforce their belief. A lifetime of learned signifiers – in fashion, architecture, body language and myriad other cues – allows them to modify their social realities and impose segregation in an instant. They exclude all that isn’t right, comprehensively, removing persons and structures, cars and graffiti; unseeing through a remarkable perception.
It is a truly bizarre culture and place all the more powerful for the detail and reality Miéville imbues it with. A situation accepted like weather by those contained by it but baffling to those entering it – a difference the reader quickly comes to sympathise with. As the book unfolds it becomes clear that the central threat to Borlú and the Cities is, and always has been, existential; it lies in their un-knowledge and un-perception of each other. In order to solve the case Borlú must decipher the obscure boundaries of his cultural reality. Borlú must see not only Ul-Qoma, but also the liminal spaces that separate and define the Cities. He must see for the first time in his life and, with that sight, everything he knows will change.
The mindboggling actuality of the book is impossible to accept immediately, it takes complete submersion, one that is deceptively easy. Miéville creates a finely nuanced place that, as ridiculous as it should be, is real – the Cities breathe in the anomalous histories of Belfast, Jerusalem and Berlin and exhale a Siamese city that by comparison makes those places look whole. Melville understands how hard it is to comprehend the place and the concept and, wisely, doesn’t seek to remedy it with didactic asides or laboured exposition. Instead he allows the unfolding story to bring our perception and awareness of the Cities to a natural fruition – their dimensions wend into our brains unseen, until it’s as if they were always there.
The bipolar existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma powers the plot, the beautifully crafted characters give it gravity, but the spirit of it lies in the interstices, the physical and metaphysical spaces between the cities. It is these gaps, the lacunae that define and challenge the accepted realities of the different locales, which baffle and intrigue the reader. Miéville challenges us to observe what we refuse to see, to draw out of our environs, both real and imagined, the discordant factors that vie for importance in our cities, countries and lives. This wonderful and enthralling novel does what so few others do: it makes us look upon our own places, spaces and interstices with fresh eyes, stripped of comfortable veils.
This book confirms Miéville as a seriously talented writer, one able at will to subvert genre and accepted wisdom with seemingly limitless gifts. In the dense jungle of literature, he is a predator, moving with power amongst established conventions, heedless of their place, before he usurps them, deconstructing them and making them serve his needs, purposes and vision. He produces, almost casually, what so few writers are capable of: originality.