‘It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch; it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that.’The City & The City is a noir mystery novel set in the “grostopically” overlapping cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. What this means is that the two cities occupy the exact same space but remain separate entities – each has its own government, its own laws, its own history and traditions. The inhabitants of Besźel and Ul Qoma speak different languages, have different customs and mannerisms, wear different colours, and subtly signal their belonging to one city or the other in a myriad of different ways.
Besźel and Ul Qoma have parts that belong entirely to one city or the other, but there are also “crosshatched” sections where a casual visitor could easily take one wrong step and find themselves in a different city. The fact that this doesn’t happen on a daily basis is remarkable in itself – it takes years of socialisation, of learning to “unsee” or “unhear” anything happening in the wrong city, for the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma to learn to ignore each other so effectively and completely. Acknowledging something taking place in Ul Qoma if you’re in Besźel (or the reverse) is called “breaching”, and it’s both a huge social taboo and the worst possible criminal transgression. As you can imagine, this poses many challenges for children, who are still learning to unsee, and also for anyone visiting the city (to obtain a visa, tourists are required to sit an entrance exam).
The narrator of The City & The City is Tyador Borlú, a detective who works for the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel. Borlú is investigating a murder: someone dumped the body of a woman in a derelict corner of his city. It’s possible, though, that the woman was in fact killed in Ul Qoma, which would mean that Breach (the mysterious division responsible for enforcing the separation between the two cities) would have to be involved. But the more questions Borlú asks, the more he realises there’s far more to this case than meets the eye.
Long time readers of this blog will have gathered by now that I adore China Miéville. However, the way I engage with his books is very different from my usual readerly modus operandi. As usual with Miéville, I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of the characters in The City & The City, but I was all over the book ideas- and language-wise. I don’t think this means Miéville is necessarily bad at characterisation; it’s just that his characters don’t usually click for me for whatever reason. And as I’m very much a character-oriented reader, it’s quite telling that I still find so much to appreciate in his books.
Having said that, The City & The City is not my new favourite Miéville. I found it absolutely brilliant at a conceptual level, but some of his other novels have far more heart. This is a cold and cerebral kind of book, but the premise of the two overlapping cities and the way it’s executed is interesting enough that I could easily go on about it for hours. I loved how the novel engaged with ideas like the power of an agreed upon reality; with the constant dissociation that is part of everyday urban living; with the way tradition and socialisation enforce divisions that are every bit as real as actual physical walls. As Nic at Eve’s Alexandria puts it (in an excellent review I want to quote in its entirety),
Like the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma, we make and remake the world around us, sometimes without even properly realising what we leave out. Ignoring things doesn’t make them vanish, though; what we don’t want to see is still there, it is just marginalised and oppressed. When the detectives are interviewing witnesses, I found one person’s dismissal of Ul Qoman speech as just “random noise” very telling; the assumption that one’s own language (or way of life, or skin colour) is the default and everything else a meaningless or even threatening deviation from it is a prime example of this mentality at work on an unconscious, kneejerk level. (How often are the words of the powerless - women, people of colour - dismissed as ‘gossip’ or ‘chatter’ or ‘gibberish’?)This is why I found what Bowden does at the end so brilliant (spoiler that will probably make no sense out of context ahoy): he becomes invisible by studying the subtle ways we signal belonging and avoiding each and everyone one of them; by taking advantage of the fact that we ignore things and people we can’t categorise or make sense of. Like the marginalised and oppressed he’s still physically present, but he becomes almost untouchable by turning himself into something everybody refuses to engage with.
I also particularly appreciated the fact that the world of The City & The City illuminates aspects of our world without ever becoming heavy-handed or recurring to one-on-one correspondences that would turn it into a less resonant novel. There are many echoes of history in The City & The City, of course, but the novel is, if anything, about a general human tendency and the conditions that encourage it rather than about a particular historical situation. In an in-depth interview at BLDG Blog, Miéville says the following:
I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.(You should all go read that whole interview and then come join me in my ever-growing brain crush on China Miéville, by the way. The bit where he elaborates on his thoughts on why it is reductive to think of fiction in allegorical terms and adds that this obviously doesn’t mean fiction isn’t in conversation with the real world is particularly brilliant.)
I’d say he definitely succeeded – and he also succeeded in making a seemingly very out there fantasy premise frighteningly plausible. The City & The City is (to quote from the same interview) “an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders”. These are nothing but the divisions we live by, and around which we organise our lives and identities, taken to a surreal extreme.
The City & The City has a lot happening just under the surface, socially and politically – many of this premise’s implications aren’t really fully explored before the story reaches its conclusion. On the one hand this isn’t really a bad thing, as Miéville does a brilliant job of suggesting a rich and complex political world without overwhelming the reader with tangents. But on the other hand, you’re left feeling that there’s potential for far more here than what we actually get. I found the possibilities The City & The City suggests fascinating in their own right, but I imagine that whether or not that is enough will vary largely from reader to reader.
They read it too: Care’s Online Book Club, The Avid Reader’s Musings, A Striped Armchair, Book Gazing & Just Add Books, Eve’s Alexandria, Shelf Love, Rhapsody in Books, murmujú
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