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The City and the City

·4 mins

The City and the City is a police-procedural, noir speculative fiction novel written by China Méiville. The novel is about twin cities Ul Qoma and Bes´zel which exist in the same physical space but have different social, cultural and political norms.

Setting #

The novel is set in an alternate fictional world which exists within the known world. Ul Qoma and Bes´zel are twin cities much like erstwhile East and West Berlin or Tel Aviv and Jaffa in Israel. The difference is that these fictional cities occupy the same physical space, but in an unclear metaphysical realm these cities are different from each other. There are subtle cues in architecture, culture and speech from which the citizens figure out which city is where. There are areas where the two cities overlap which called cross hatch. The citizens from one city cannot move into another. The act of stepping in another city is a severe violation known as the Breach.

Ul Qoma and Bes´zel have different languages and culture. Bes´zel is ostensibly an older city with richer history. The names of citizens in Bes´zel seem to have Slavic and Turkish influence. Ul Qoma has apparently received an influx of large foreign investments and is a hub of startups and multi-national companies. Bes´zel, on the other hand, appears to be behind Ul Qoma in technological progress.

Migration from one city to another is an involved bureaucratic process. There are check posts in both the cities to prevent infiltration or any breach. The cities are apparently located somewhere in Europe and getting to Ul Qoma from a foreign county like the United States is easier than visiting Bes´zel.

In the event of a breach, a special task force called the Breach deals with the culprit and doles out an unknown punishment.

Characters #

The main character of this story is an Inspector from Bes´zel, Borlu. He is informed about the death of a young woman in wee hours. This event and the subsequent investigation sets the ball rolling for this novel. We follow Borlu’s procedural investigation and most of the novel is narrated from his point of view. Borlu is determined to solve the case and the trail leads to his ordeal with Breach. He appears jaded but curious. His relentless pursuit leads him to face a reality which can only be described as Kafkaesque. He is a sympathetic character caught in the strange world. He grows from being a conformist to an unflinching rebel questioning his identity and the world he had inhabited since birth.

As a reader we travel with Borlu, like Sherlock’s Watson, uncovering layers upon layers of conspiracy and deceit in the bizarre world.

Thoughts #

The central point of the novel is the coexistence of two cities in the same physical space. Ul Qoma and Bes´zel occupy the same physical space, but in a metaphysical realm these cities and more importantly the citizens of the two cities try to look as different from the other as possible. They unsee, unhear and unacknowledge the existence of each other. I find the allegory powerful and germane to our current political and social life. People unsee and unhear news which do not align with their political views or challenge their moral standpoints. Social media in particular amplifies this effect. We are shown filtered news or manufactured content which aligns with our political views and are recommended stories and news items which aligns with our preferences. We unhear, unsee and unacknowledge differing view points. The only way to remain neutral is, like Bowden, obfuscate our locus standi. Like Breach, the relentless social machine, watches over us and notices even a small digression. The “breachers”, then, are subjected to unknown punishment like vitriol or social exclusion. China Miéville employs a powerful allegory. Ul Qoma and Bes´zel are powerful and timeless metaphors to understand consequenses of sociopolitical rifts.

China Miéville’s writing is vivid and detailed. He paints a bleak picture of the world. The words evoke a feeling of being in a Film-noir movie, say of Humphrey Bogart. Much like Humphrey Bogart’s character in Maltese Falcon, Miéville’s Borlu is world weary and doomed from the start. You can almost imagine Borlu brooding over the case, and his face dimly lit through a light from the window panes.

My biggest gripe with the novel is its third act or the end. I did not get a feeling of closure and the climax felt rushed. Miéville tried a meta-fiction twist in the end, but it did not work for me.