9 July 2009

China Miéville, The City & The City, 2009

One of Miéville’s starting points for The City & The City was a line from Bruno Schulz’s short story ‘The Cinnamon Shops’ (from his collection The Street of Crocodiles), about an imagined city, hidden and unseen, that occupies the same space as Poland’s Drogobych. Miéville seems to have simply taken this idea and expanded on it with considerable detail and a complete change of genre, instead producing a curious hybrid of Chandleresque crime with a slight twist in the nature of reality. In the contemporary Eastern European double city of Beszel/Ul Qoma a murder is committed in one city but can only be solved in the other. This presents some very interesting complications, not all of which Miéville surmounts completely, mostly because people of one city are forbidden from seeing the other city at all, even its inhabitants, and even while in the same street. How citizens avoid breaching this solid rule is done by ‘unseeing’ them, a kind of tuning out of the senses, and it sometimes felt as if, for this notion to work, Miéville had to constantly reinforce and shore up this taught and learned ability by showing increasingly difficult situations where people are challenged to ‘unsee’ what is clearly right in front of them. To walk around with so many blind spots peppering your vision and hearing must surely be debilitating beyond any ability to function properly, but everyone is adept at it and they seem to get by just fine without invoking the wrath of the authority that preserves this intimidating status quo, known as Breach. And then there is the notion of a mysterious and sinister third city, hidden again somewhere between the two, which Miéville uses to great imaginative effect in pulling the story forward.

It’s admirable that Miéville hasn’t copped out with any magical or paraphysical explanations for the two cities occupying the same space, and it must have been far more challenging to have written it this way without resorting to his considerable facility for fantasy. A fair amount of characterisation also seems to have been sacrificed in order to keep the pace up, but instead Beszel/Ul Qoma becomes a good addition to that list of imagined cities where Weird Shit happens – it’s more Hav than Bellona, but still different from either. Having said all that I still found this an engrossing read and have no objection at all to the way Miéville makes you work a double shift, both at getting your head around the nature of the cities themselves as well as keeping up with the slightly less trivial pursuit of figuring out the whodunnit. One of my favourite and certainly less easily categorised books of 2009.  PY


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