Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The City and The City

China Miéville
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The City & the City is, on one level, a decent but not outstanding detective novel. At the beginning of the book, a young woman is found dead in the fictional Balkan city of Besźel, and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel policzai has to solve her murder.

What makes the book unique and interesting is the setting. The victim is discovered in Besźel, a down-at-heel, primarily Slavic city. But there is evidence that she was actually killed in Besźel’s prosperous, primarily Islamic sister city of Ul Qoma, and then later dumped in Besźel. This is a serious matter, as relations between Besźel and Ul Qoma are extremely tense.

To make matters even more complicated, Besźel and Ul Qoma are co-located. That is, the two cities are physically intermingled with each other. Some sections are total Besźel; some are total Ul Qoma; and some are “crosshatched,” meaning that streets and buildings in one city alternate with those in the other—sometimes block to block and sometimes house to house.

And if you are in one city, it is a tremendous offense not only to physically step into the other city, but also even to sense or acknowledge the people, buildings, traffic, or sounds of the other city in any way. If you do, and you are caught doing it, you can be arrested for breach, and spirited away by a sort of black ops breach enforcement unit, never to be heard from again.

Children in both cities are taught from birth to “unsee” what they aren’t supposed to see. Tourists to either city are given an intensive multi-week training program in the practice of unseeing. But even adult natives can have a hard time with it, since sometimes the only way to tell which city a thing or person is in is by the subtlest of cues—architecture, colors of clothing, or how hedges are trimmed.

Needless to say, this makes it extraordinarily difficult to conduct everyday life in either city, much less solve a murder where the person was murdered in one city and then dumped in the other. In the course of his investigation, Inspector Borlú has to use all his skills navigating the divisions and still runs afoul of breach enforcement units, militant unificationists who want to combine the two cities, and nationalist extremists on both sides who want their city to take over the other.

Reading this book, I found myself comparing the detective story (favorably) to Resurrection Men. As in Resurrection Men, the main character was an experienced, middle-aged male detective with an able younger female constable assisting him; the police hierarchy had a British flavor; and the story took place in the present day, complete with cell phones and modern attitudes and style. But The City & The City was a more interesting story, with a far more likeable detective, and it was, thank goodness, told in the past tense. The ending was a little bit deflating, but that may have just been a natural result of the mystery being explained, the unknown finally becoming known.

It was Miéville’s conception and implementation of the dual city-city, though, that made this book a real standout.

Some reviewers have called this book a “post-9/11” novel, meaning that it explores the split between Islam and Christianity. But I think the metaphor is more general than that. Besźel and Ul Qoma are like many different divided societies, past and present—Berlin, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Budapest, the Balkans, Northern Ireland. Their people live close to each other and sometimes seem alike to outsiders, but are sharply and violently divided by thought and history. Separation is perpetuated by entrenched political institutions. Prejudices strengthen with time and lack of familiarity.

What makes The City & The City a great thought experiment is that in Besźel and Ul Qoma, the separation is entirely mental. I couldn’t help but think that the inhabitants of Besźel must be aware of the Ul Qomans around them, and vice versa. I thought about how it would be so easy to commit breach by walking from a house in Besźel into an Ul Qoman one next door. And yet it hardly ever happens. For the citizens of these two cities, the mental divisions are so ingrained that they have become physically real. The inhabitants of one city really can’t see the inhabitants of the other, even in the case of danger or panic.

And, at the risk of being high-faluting, I don't think this is so far-fetched from reality. I know that there are all kinds of things—and people—in front of my face in my everyday life that might seem ridiculously obvious to others but that, for one reason or another, I don't see at all.

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