Friday, March 25, 2016

The City & The City - China Miéville

Some years ago I read Miéville's Bas-Lag novels. They are challenging reads, especially to a second language reader. Miéville's vocabulary is impressive and he uses it all in those novels. The books centre on the fictional city of New Corbuzon, a place that is as much a character in the book as the people that live in it. Cities, especially strange ones, seem to attract Miéville. He displays a whole range of different genres in his novels but wether it is New Corbuson, Un-Lun-Dun or Besźel/Ul Qoma or Embassytown, strange urban environments seem to connect his work. The City and the City does strange very well. It was nominated for an unbelievable number of awards. After having read it, I'm not surprised it won as many of them as it did.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel police, is handed what will turn out to be the most complicated case of his career. The body of a young woman is found dumped in a shady part of town. Soon, the trail leads to the city of Ul Qoma, where Borlú has no jurisdiction. The cities have a long and complicated history together, both geographically and politically. To guard the status quo between them, an organisation called Breach can be invoked for crimes during which the border between the two has been illegally crossed. To Borlú's surprise, no such illegal crossing has taken place. Breach cannot be called upon. Instead, Borlú is sent to Ul Qoma to help the local authorities solve the case.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around the city Miéville is describing. They are two states, essentially sharing the same physical space, where by convention and law, the inhabitants of both cities choose not to see, or as Miéville puts it, to 'unsee' each other. Some streets are fully Besźel, some fully Ul Qoma, others shared or 'crosshatched' as Miéville puts it. It's a situation that constantly influences the inhabitants, and demands that they carefully choose what to see and what not. Miéville's point here is clearly that we all choose to see or unsee certain parts of our environment. That how we perceive our surroundings is partially a choice, to a point dictated by custom or what is specifically targeted at us. Miéville puts a lot of examples in the text of how this situation influences daily life and how it has shaped the cities. The first time you go out after finishing the book you'll probably look around and ask yourself what you  normally aren't seeing.

For some reason the situation in Miéville's fictional city - it is suggested that it is located somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps on the Black Sea coast - reminded me a bit of Jerusalem taken a different turn some time in the past. A city that is so layered in history, where several peoples and religions have a claim on the place, and where sharing the place is both unthinkable and the only way to a lasting peace, you can almost see something like what Miéville describes happening. Then again, and Miéville works this dark side of human nature into his novel as well, there are always those who want it all and do not mind shedding blood to get it.

The novel has a definite fantastical aspect to it, but for a large part it is a police procedural. The unique politics of the place gives Miéville plenty of opportunities to develop a good conspiracy. It may start out with a single murder but that proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. The plot itself is very convoluted. In the end it falls into place but I must admit that the final revelation was not quite as interesting to me as the way Miéville uses the plot to show the various ways of seeing the city. The author uses characters from both sides of the border as well as foreigners, and then has Borlú try to make sense of their perspective. It's very cleverly done but I'm not entirely sure it will convince fans of more conventional murder mysteries. You need to be able to enjoy the synthesis of the two genres to really appreciate  it.

I had a lot less difficulty with Miéville's English in this novel than with the language in Perdido Street Station for some reason. It's not that Miéville suddenly abandons his preference for long, complex sentences and matching vocabulary but it's not as extravagant as I remember from his earlier books. Or maybe my English has improved in the past few years. The first explanation is more likely, a darker, less extravagant style seems more fitting.

The City and the City is one of those novels that takes fantasy to a different level. It clearly fantastic yet impossible to categorize, it experiments with fusing genres, with language and with perspective. It nods to  some of the great writers in mystery, fantasy and science fiction, as well as a main stream literature. You could probably do a thesis on everything that went into this novel. In the end I guess it is the way in which Miéville balances the influences, themes and plot that makes this novel stand out. He is ambitious in what he attempts and he pulls it off. That is a rare feat indeed. If you are up for something different and something challenging, The City and the City is a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 373
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-53419-2
First published: 2009

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