A Tale of Two Cities
Recent history is not unaccustomed to cities existing rather inharmoniously side by side – just think of the Berlin wall before its fall, dividing East from West Germany, or the still ongoing feud between Israel and Palestine. In The City & The City two city-states exist together in the same physical topography, but are 2 entirely separate entities with their own governments, their own security forces (one called the policzai and the other the communist-style militsya), and their own citizens – all who exist side-by side but who cannot risk the fury of Breach by acknowledging the other.
China Miéville’s Existential Dystopian Cities
In The City & The City China Miéville’s Inspector Tyador Borlú is a policzai detective in the Extreme Crime Squad division of the city of Besźel, one of the two cities. The novel starts by a body having been discovered and the Inspector going in for what he assumes will be a routine investigation. It soon turns out that it isn’t as it’s discovered that though the body may have been found in Besźel, the victim may actually have been killed in the second city of Ul Qoma, which introduces a host of jurisdictional issues. Inspector Borlú, while co-operating with his counterpart in the militsya, Senior Detective Dhatt, soon finds that the case is much bigger than imagined and a third security force may need to be invoked, one that everyone fears but understands is a necessity for the existence of both cities. It’s here that we’re introduced to the force that is Breach.
The book follows the ususal detective crime fiction model (even with the complicated geographical setting and politics) until we start to grapple with the concept of the Breach. Just what is Breach? Put simply – and it’s anything but – Breach is a policing force that has jurisdiction in both the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Their main occupation is to ensure no interaction between the two cities. This immediately introduces problems, considering both cities are in the same geographical location, with locations that sometimes overlap. The author overcomes the contradiction of 2 people who may not be too far away spatially but nevertheless are in different states and who risk transgression by acknowledging the other’s presence by introducing the concepts of unseeing and unhearing. Needless to say then that while this may be an interesting idea the author never quite manages to convice how this would work in reality so that asinine scenarios often present themselves (like having to unhear a dog bark in another city, or having to unsee a car coming down the street if that part of the street is in the opposite country.) Miéville never quite fully convinces the reader to believe this world and he never quite establishes whether this policing force is alien in nature, and therefore power, or just a completely human construct. In fact on this issue there are many gaps that tend to draw one’s concentration from what should be an engaging read.
Pros & Cons, Anyone?
And this, in my opinion, is where the book falters: it tries to deal with too many complicated things. For one the setting of the story whist imaginative is too complex, and even though this is not a problem the author never quite develops his world past superficial stages. Then there’s the problem of the players involved: security forces from two very different cities; political entities in both cities, each with different agendas, each with different reasons for wanting to kill the victim – whether it’s the nationalists who want to maintain the sovereignty of each city or the unionists who want to join them together. Finally the culture of both cities in unseeing and unhearing that necessitaties the prescence of the entity that is Breach in some places brought about scenes that were just fatuous. All in all what started out as a promising story just ended up being rather convoluted because it was trying to wrestle with a tangle of ideas.
You can find reviews of The City The City in the Guardian and the Telegraph. In the end this is an ambitious book with big ideas, one of them being string theory as the Guardian points out, but one that I think would have benefitted from a little more tweaking to iron out its less fine points. But maybe this is China Miéville’s method – that he does not mind experimenting and does not mind making the reader uncomfortable, wondering just what’s going on. I say, make up your own mind and read it. It’s well worth a look.
Source: First published in 2009 by Macmillan. This edition published in 2011 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishing Limited