China Miéville’s The City & The City is the second novel on my 2016 reading list of cult and obscure fiction I’d gathered from charity shops since 2014. This may have been on my Amazon wishlist for several years prior to buying this book for 99p at a charity shop, but I don’t recall exactly where I’d come across Miéville before, except likely it could have been after browsing the science fiction section of a local library in either Camberwell or Peckham, South London.
The book’s stylish cover and the author’s odd, foreign name probably caught my eye. ‘China Miéville’ sounds like a blend of dystopian French New Wave Cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai, Bob Le Flambeur) or Godard’s Alphaville (1965), The Battle of Algiers, and perhaps the 1979 US thriller The China Syndrome (James Bridges); all films of which I haven’t seen except for Melville’s two films and Battle of Algiers, but which invoke a sense of otherworldliness, paranoia, totalitarianism, espionage and dystopia synonymous with Science Fiction fantasy, George Orwell and Blade Runner (1982).
Perhaps not so surprisingly, The City & The City did not live up to expectations or presumptions about the genre. A medium sized length novel, 372 pages, and written in a vernacular, plain and unpretentious prose resembling Raymond Chandler and US pulp detective genre of the 40s and the Hollywood Film Noir adaptions (The Big Sleep, Maltese Falcon, Gilda, Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown). Miéville novel pays homage to the clichéd gumshoe thrillers of hoodlums, backalleys, dames and corrupt cigar chewing Police Chiefs, whilst somehow making it all sound fresh and contemporary.
To be brutally honest, I found the premise interesting, but the plot and pace of the novel less thrilling or one you might describe as a ‘page-turner’, as the recommendations from authors and critics such as Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Mail would lead to you to believe.
Essentially a murder-mystery whodunit in which a cynical police detective working under one jurisdiction is forced to take unorthodox methods, break his own codes and laws in order to pursue his investigation which gradually becomes more complex and political as the clock ticks down.
What makes it more interesting that your usual cat-and-mouse detective yarn, and also challenging as a piece of fiction, is that notion of two separate cultures and communities inhabiting the same proximity, the same metropolis, and yet literally not being able to visibly see or come into contact with another…..confused yet? I was. It took me probably all the way until two thirds of the novel to realise that the communities and city streets actually exist in the same space, but the citizens have simply been educated and psychologically trained to carefully ignore and navigate one another without disruption.
Obviously this is the theory, but in practise, there are issues, political factions and accidents and practical issues which means that citizens are constantly overlapping and violating this strange and impossible scenario. I had assumed up until part 3 of the novel that the separate communities lived in different areas of the same city, in a clear reference to the division between disparate communities such as East and West Berlin, Buda and Pest separated by the Danube river, Lebanon, or the warzone that exists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
hatched’ streets and roadways, and the civilians’ ‘unseeing’ of anything foreign in order to avoid ‘breaching’. These words appears copiously throughout, ‘breach’ a term being overused and applied to events, places and persons in repetition. This is the law which the two communities must conform, the unpronounceable ‘Beszel’ and the ‘Ul Qoma’, two separate cultures and languages (Illitan, Besze and English), existing under strict quarantine laws and jurisdictions managed by a committee with ties to Canada, and policed under a secret diplomatic organisation called ‘The Breach’.
The Besze detective, Tyador Borlú, describes this invisible law enforcement Breach as impossible to detect or communicate with to the point where you’re wondering if it exists at all, despite his awareness for their presence and that their agents, like the KGB or Gestapo, are everywhere and ubiquitous.
For first two parts of the novel Borlú’s investigation to embroiled in a complex political debate between the two factions. The dead girl, Mahala Geary, a PHD student exploring an ancient and controversial cult called the ‘Orciny’, and who’s battered remains are discovered on a derelict site in Beszel, seems as if it was place there in order to divert an investigation that might uncover links to Ul Qoma; thereby provoking a diplomatic crisis and risking attention from the Breach.
Miéville, although he describes the two factions and provides brief details of the racial tensions and turbulent past, he doesn’t mediate on the personal conflicts or past histories of the characters, he merely provides and repeats the idea that there are two social structures living alongside one another who simply must avoid each at all costs. The racial differences, customs and cultures are never fully examined, nor are the languages, Borlú simply narrates himself switching from Illitan, Besze or English, and comments on the differences between with the two races without going in depth; simply that the architecture, clothes, smells, behaviours, attitudes are different, presumably resembling something that appear as Israelis and Palestinians, but this is never fully clarified. To an extent, the reader must apply his own imagination or interpretation of what these cultures really are or represent. I hadn’t, until reading the back cover just now, realised that Miéville set this nation ‘somewhere in a decaying Europe’, despite the novel’s mention of Canada, Budapest, China and the UK, I was confused throughout the novel as to precisely where this place was meant to exist, and had drawn the conclusion that it must be a fictionalised Arabian/Latino-hybrid USA existing centuries into the future. A date is never provided, so it felt it left up to the reader to decide where and when this world is supposed to exist.
As you would expect, the plot thickens as the investigation reveals that the dead foreign student had links to various right-wing nationalist groups, terrorists, unification campaigners ‘unis’ and Orciny cult sects, who all appear to have something to hide either from Borlú and his female police partner Corwi, Breach or from their government authorities. I’d felt like I’d spent a lot of time trying to understand who these organisations really were or represent, but eventually concluded that it didn’t really matter, that it was too complicated to really understand. In the end, as with the recent acts of terrorism happening in Brussels and Europe between Islamic State and powers in the Western world, the controversy reported in the media surrounding Trump and the US election, the conflict in Israel and Palestine, Syria and Putin, this is all simply too much for anyone to fathom, but it somehow remains cogent to the themes within this novel.
Not to dissuade you, the plot is not nearly as complex as events happening right now in the real world. In the end, as it eventually revealed after Borlú tracks down a missing witness and friend of Mahala, but who fails to stop an assassination by the conspirators, in a plot twist he is captured and then commissioned by the secret special unit Breach to discover the true identity of the killers. For anyone familiar with The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep or Chinatown, the killer and his accomplices are revealed to be the persons we least expected, in this case the victim’s closest ally and mentor , with just a simple motivation of money and greed that ironically and haphazardly caused this unlikely series of events to escalate.
A clichéd climax about corruption, greed and morality, and one that forces Borlú to reassess and make a tough decision about his future, and whether he should stay with Breach, turning his back on the past, or continue on his journey into the unknown, existing between the two cities, and perhaps heralding Miéville’s introduction to a series of novels about this bizarre, divided world.
The lack of development or drama between was my only real critcism. Borlú doesn’t appear to have any relationships outside those involved in the investigation. He forms some kind trust with the Breach agent, ‘Ashil’, towards the end, and who inducts Borlú into Breach, but there’s little information about their past histories. Similarly, as the dots are connected, Borlú gains respect and friendship after overcoming political tensions with an opposing detective, ‘Dhatt’, from Ul Quoma side of this investigation. Borlú’s only other friend is his assistant Corwi, somewhat like Doctor Who’s female assistant, and perhaps a potential love interest or protege, again this relationship never develops and we never learn much about the character, but who will no doubt appear in the sequel.