No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 25, 2010

2010/32: The City and the City -- China Mieville

... pass through Copula Hall and he or she might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude and longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now that they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home. (p.86)

The City and the City is, on one level, a police procedural. The setting is a city somewhere on the eastern edge of Europe, near Turkey and Bulgaria and Hungary: a city that's somehow split into two different, conterminous cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Though Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same geographical area (some streets exist only in one city or the other; others are crosshatched with alterity, patches of both), they are ontologically divided. A man may watch a woman walking down the street in front of him before realising -- through subtle distinctions of dress, mannerism, behaviour -- that she isn't in the same city as him: that he 'should not have seen her'.

The two cities are wholly independent, with their own government, police forces, legal systems. The division between the two cities, though, is policed by the mysterious Breach, a body which is responsible for keeping the two cities apart: for punishing those who stray from one to another without traversing official borders, and preventing any interaction between the inhabitants of the two cities. The body of a murder victim is found in a Beszel park, but Inspector Borlu discovers that she was murdered in Ul Qoma. Surely a case for Breach? But instead Borlu finds himself working with his Ul Qoman counterpart Qussim Dhatt, walking the streets of the other city and unseeing his own.

And gradually the two of them come to realise that the murdered woman was on the trail of a deeper mystery: a force opposed to Breach, a city that's neither Beszel nor Ul Qoma, an explanation for the muddled archaeology of Ul Qoma, a revolution in the making ...

Mieville's worldbuilding is exquisitely detailed without being obtrusive. Beszel and Ul Qoma have their own internet domain suffixes (.zb and .uq).
The colour known as Beszel Blue is illegal in Ul Qoma. Beszel was once more modern, more advanced, than its twin: now Ul Qoma is enjoying an economic boom. Immigrants who hoped to reach Ul Qoma are bitterly disappointed when they're picked up by Beszel's patrols. Tourists from abroad have to undergo training and pass an entrance exam (theoretical and practical role-play) before they're granted visas. Those who pass from one city to the other wear visitor's marks, so that they may legitimately be seen. The two cities, countries, have different scripts, different histories, significantly different archaeology. They appear in travelogues, in novels (I wonder if the in-story novel by Pahlaniuk, concerning those who live between the interstices of the two cities, is a sly reference to Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club, another work concerning identity and division); they are compared to other more traditionally divided cities such as Jerusalem and Berlin. The highway codes must be a nightmare.

But the glorious inventiveness of the setting tends to overwhelm the novel's plot. A crime has been committed: that crime is solved, because Borlu is a man who will do the right thing even if it's forbidden by law, by custom, by ontology. But that crime -- its victim, her family, the investigators, the colleagues -- seems shallow, flimsy, ultimately incomprehensible.

The narrative voice is Borlu's throughout, and perhaps that's why he stands out as a person, an individual with emotions and dimensions, in a way that none of the other characters quite achieve. We witness the arc of his transformation, but there's no sense of closure. I felt I was missing something in this novel: perhaps an explanation for the city/ies' nature, perhaps a drawing-together of hints and echoes (the 'questionable physics' of ancient artifacts, for instance), perhaps just a resolution of the pervasive sense of disequilibrium. An unsettling novel in more ways than one -- but it's beautifully crafted, with dreamlike images hammered firmly home with Borlu's dogged pragmatism and gritty detail.

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