Review: The City & The City by China Miéville
The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Published by: Pan Macmillan
China Miéville is the hip priest of fantasy fiction, a Fonz-like figure who tells the squares how it is and always goes his own way. With his shaved head, multiple piercings and outspoken disposition, Miéville must be accustomed to being the coolest guy in the room, even in rooms not populated exclusively by geeks. Image aside, Miéville has had a profound impact on contemporary fantasy, helping to establish politically nuanced urban fantasy as a commercial alternative to triple-decker Tolkien rip-offs.
The City & The City is set in Besźel, a fictional city-state perched on the edge of Europe. The story takes the form of a police procedural: a woman is found murdered and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad – like a regular Homicide Squad only to the extreme! – is called in to investigate. Now, the world needs another book about a lone wolf police officer chasing down crooks against a gritty urban backdrop like a camel needs a three-day Gold Coast theme park superpass. Fortunately, Miéville has something meatier to offer than a suspenseless traipse through genre cliché.
Besźel, it turns out, occupies the same geographic position as rival city-state called Ul Qoman. That is, there is one physical city that is divided into two discrete political and metaphysical places. Buildings or entire streets sometimes belong wholly to one city or another; other areas are “crosshatched”, so that (for example) a street is shared by motorists and pedestrians from both cities, or a particular building is in Besźel while its neighbour is in Ul Qoman. Residents of Besźel and Ul Qoman are conditioned from birth to “unsee” the foreign city in their midst; any crossing of the physical or metaphysical boundaries results in arrest by a supra-national secret police organisation known only as Breach.
It’s a brilliant conceit, with obvious parallels to Cold War Berlin, present-day Jerusalem, and even the Fleming/Walloon divide in Belgium. It’s also richly metaphorical, like a working model of Benedict Anderson’s influential concept of imagined communities. The notion of “unseeing” the readily apparent seems absurd until you consider the bang-up job our own society does of seeing the homeless and other supposedly undesirable elements. On a broader political level, Besźel and Ul Qoman are an extrapolation of humanity’s drive to create subjective realities, to carve up the world into Them and Us. It’s nationalism taken to an extreme, yet logical, end.
Miéville uses the process of discovery inherent in the detective story framework to keep information dumping to a minimum. The world of Besźel and Ul Qoman is fleshed out with remarkable clarity and consistency. Borlú’s investigation isn’t merely surface colour; it is vital to the exploration of the novel’s conceptual underpinning. The average fictional detective is already a liminal creature, poised between the authority of the state and the competing authorities of the underworld. Through Borlú Miéville explores not only the interstices of government and gangland but also the space between the city and the city – the sinister mysteries upon which Besźel and Ul Qoman are founded.
Riveting as it is, The City & The City may turn off some readers with its weirdly affectless and stilted prose style. At times it has the hollow, not-quite-right feel of a translation. Oddly, this ostensible deficiency adds an alien quality to the narrative. I don’t know if the effect is deliberate or fortuitous, but it works well in the context of this strange, fascinating novel.
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