home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the city & the city

29 february 2012

The City & the City is a Krimi set in an invented place. Initially I thought it would resemble the world created by Håkan Nesser for his police procedurals. But Nesser's invented nation is a pastiche of several Northern European places; it doesn't exist, but it obeys the basic logic of Holland, Denmark, or Sweden. To some extent China Miéville's Besźel and Ul Qoma are Southeastern-European analogies to Nesser's territory. But in other ways they are science-fiction cities, only the sciences fictionalized in The City & the City are anthropology, sociology, and archaeology.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are in fact the same place, and only a massive collective fiction – and some alert police work – makes it possible for two cities to coexist on the same streets without interaction.

It's everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don't blink. 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. (310)
Miéville's two cities draw their inspiration from Jerusalem and Cold War Berlin, famously partitioned cities. (The characters also mention Budapest as a "split city," though I don't think Budapest has been partitioned by anything except the Danube.) The walls that run between Besźel and Ul Qoma, however, are completely notional. For the most part, the two cities occupy the same street grid and other physical spaces. But as you walk or drive through one city, you must "unsee" the other. It doesn't exist for you, and if you so much as become aware of its existence, some weird adjustment-bureau-like characters materialize from nowhere and drag you off to The Breach, an existential fate worse than Orwell's Room 101.

To create his cities, Miéville has to coin a lot of nonce vocabulary (as well as imagine two new, though lightly-represented, entire languages). The City & the City has thus drawn comparisons to Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, as well as to Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka; I'd add Borges (""Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius") and Philip Pullman (The Subtle Knife) as even closer inspirations for the parallel-universe mechanisms of Besźel and Ul Qoma. In fact, the mediating, all-powerful, unaccountable Breach reminds me of nothing so much as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Is it New York? Is it New Jersey? Is it answerable to anyone? Can you ever get your fare refunded if the PATH vending machine spits out the wrong ticket? These are everyday questions similar to those that face the Besź and the Ul Qomans.

None of the elaborate exposition that Miéville employs to bring these cities to life would be interesting if there weren't a brisk story to hold your attention, but fortunately there's that, too. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called to a crime scene in Besźel that resembles those in every procedural since the dawn of the genre: a gruesomely murdered young woman, dumped in an urban wasteland in his city, but not far from the other city. (You can never get far from the other city.) Has she been dumped across the invisible boundary? But that would be breach, and he'd never have known about it; the Mr Fix-Its of the cities' existential balance would have already dealt with the problem. No, she's been killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Besźel legally: the China-Miéville equivalent of a locked-room mystery.

At this point, Borlú needs an Ul Qoman sidekick, and the novel becomes tangentially reminiscent of the excellent apartheid-era procedurals by South African writer James McClure, in which white and black detectives Kramer and Zondi team up to investigate crimes that sprawl across uncrossable boundaries. But only briefly. Soon we are in speculative-fiction territories that don't resemble much of anything, following crime-novel conventions that resemble a little of everything. As in most good hard-boiled novels, the ultimate solution of the mystery is desperately hard to follow, and as with any good hard-boiled, the reader doesn't care all that much. The atmosphere is everything, and Miéville is extremely good here at defining his terms in the course of keeping an enthralling story going.

The mental agility needed to maintain the cities' separation is, on the one hand, implausible. Besźel and Ul Qoma seem to be very haphazardly signposted. Even given rigorous training since birth, it's hard to imagine that any citizen of either would really have the keen sense of what's where needed to navigate everyday life.

But in another sense, as metaphor, that process of "unseeing" is chillingly realistic. It stands for ghettoes and class boundaries that lead us to ignore the existence of "other halves," to look away from them in aloofness or abasement. The City & the City may be like Farewell, My Lovely, but in another sense it's like Mrs. Dalloway: how can the twain ever meet? Besźel / Ul Qoma is impossible, but impossible to avoid. In Arlington, Texas, every day of the year, one class, one ethnicity, slides through the streets trying not to see another from the tinted windows of their SUVs. Unsensing, indeed.

Miéville, China. The City & the City. 2009. New York: Del Rey [Random House], 2010.