The City & The City by China Miéville is probably one of the most unique books I’ve read in awhile. Yet it is also familiar in the way it unfolds, in the way the story is told. The book reads like a film noir. You can feel the grittiness of those classic black and white detective movies in the mood Miéville sets, in the way the protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú, observes and tells the story. You can almost picture him in his trench coat, his face tucked deep inside the collars, a fedora on his head – even though no part of the story ever tells us what Borlú is wearing, except for that one time where… ah… but I’ll be revealing parts of the story if I were to tell you, and this is a crime novel after all, albeit one that borders on the anti-fantasy.
I haven’t read much of Miéville, but if I were to classify him in a genre it would be new-fantasy with an edge. He doesn’t write of dragons and great adventures, but there are strange creatures, strange places. He’s not unlike Neil Gaiman, with piercings. Literally, too.
The cities in The City & The City is one such strange place. Besźel and Ul Qoma are two separate cities (and countries) that occupy the same geographic space. And no, I don’t mean they overlap one another or exist one on top (or under) the other in two separate dimensions. While the Q&A at the back of the book likens the separation to the division of the West and the Muslim world (which I completely didn’t get at all), it reminded me more of the Berlin Wall – of one city divided in half. And that is what Besźel and Ul Qoma used to be – a single city now divided. However, while a border exists, as well as a customs and immigration checkpoint, the borders between Besźel and Ul Qoma are imaginary, but very real. You can’t see – or un-see it – or even touch it, but they are there, in your mind, on the maps. They don’t even necessarily exist in straight lines – like how Selangor is on one side of the LDP and WP is on the other. Besźel and Ul Qoma can exist on both sides of the same street, and even have shared ‘cross-hatched’ spaces like roads, public transport, cafe’s and parks.
Finding this hard to wrap your head around? Imagine you’re in Bukit Bintang. The Main Street and sidewalks are a shared space. Pavilion is in Ul Qoma, but Starhill is in Besźel, the small row of shoplots next to Starhill is in Besźel, except for one or two shops that exist in Ul Qoma. Got that?
Now, picture this: except for where the areas are shared, aka cross-hatched, you cannot, are not allowed to, and absolutely must not cross into the other city. Not only that, you have to not see, aka un-see the people, buildings and anything else that belong to the other city, whether you are in a cross-hatched place or not. Say you’re driving along Jalan Bukit Bintang and you’re in Besźel, but an Ul Qoma car has stopped in the middle of the road and is blocking traffic – you have to pretend that that Ul Qoma car IS NOT THERE and just carry on driving while subconsciously avoiding that car.
Visitors and citizens of either city are allowed to visit the other though – as long as you go through immigration first. And when you cross over you must then un-see where you came from. So let’s say your aunt geographically lives a few doors away from you, but her house exists in Ul Qoma. Your house, however, is in Besźel. You HAVE to go through immigration in order to visit her. And if you think no one’s watching and won’t catch you crossing illegally, think again, because Breach is watching, and they will get you.
If you’re thinking all this is ludicrous, well, it IS an anti-fantasy after all. And why it’s an anti-fantasy is because it’s a seemingly impossible scenario that could also be very plausible. Think of it this way – how many times have you walked passed someone you didn’t like, or a beggar, a street seller, someone soliciting donations or something or other, etc, and pretend they weren’t there? I’m certainly guilty of walking past credit card sales executives while consciously trying not to catch their eye. It’s like that, The City & The City, just on a significantly more complex and grander scale.
Back in Besźel a murder has occurred, and one Inspector Borlú is tasked to solve. While the case is an intriguing one, it is also not the heart of the story as it first appears to be. Because really this book is about the two cities and how they coexist, and the murder is the means for showing how things work in these two locations. And Miéville purposely made it that way. This may irk crime novel readers who want clear conclusions and the who, what, when, why and how answered and the conspiracy solved. However sometimes, that’s just the way things are. Yes, the murder gets solved, but what’s more interesting is finding out what will happen to Borlù after all is said and done.
Overall this book isn’t difficult to read. The names are unusual and tricky to remember at first, and the way the characters speak are hesitant, with pauses, thoughts and sentences changing mid sentence, much like how conversations can occur in real life. There’s no scripted smoothness to their discussions, no wise quotes for me to store for a later time. And while it bothered me a little first, I did get quite used to it and the story began to open up.
So if you’re in for something a little unusual but not unrealistically so, The City & The City is absolutely worth the read. I think it’s my favourite thing by Miélville so far.