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The City & The City Hardcover – May 26, 2009
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New York Times bestselling author China MiÃ©ville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any otherâreal or imagined.
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador BorlÃº of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.
BorlÃº must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszelâs equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, BorlÃº is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead womanâs secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.
What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.
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The novel takes place in two cities in different countries which occupy the same physical space. You wouldn't have thought that possible but the author makes the world so logically consistent that you come to believe it. While the setting is inventive, imaginative, and engrossing, the author does not make the mistake of thinking it is the story. The story is also engrossing and consistent, and dependent on, its weird local. The characters, except the main one, might stand a little fleshing out, but that does not detract from the story. In fact, with so much else to think about, maybe their lack of depth is a bit of a relief.
At the end, I really could not put this down. Strong recommendation.
Miéville's cities of Beszél (which incidentally means 'to speak' in Hungarian) and UI Quoma are fantastically created. They are reminiscent of East and West Berlin, but instead of a high concrete walls and guard towers, the walls between Miéville's two city-countries are seemingly purely psychological, built on a deep and pervasive fear of 'Breach'. Citizens of both cities learn to 'unsee', 'unsmell', and 'unhear' everything about the other city: it's traffic, people, buildings, and more.
The idea of two countries being in the same place but separated in the minds of their citizens is a barrier for the reader's suspension of disbelief, but it's a problem that is skillfully attacked by Miéville. He describes a number of challenges the two cities need to deal with such as 'foreign' traffic and emergency vehicles, traffic accidents involving 'foreign' vehicles, children who are inexperienced at 'unseeing', tourists, immigration, trade, and differing economic status of the two countries. His description of UI Qomatown in Beszél is a good example of how much thought he has put into this world:
"The scents of Beszél UI Qomatown are a confusion. The instinct is to unsmell them, to think of them as drift across the boundaries as disrespectful as rain ("Rain and woodsmoke live in both cities," the proverb has it.)...Very occasionally a young UI Qoman who does not know the area of their city that UI Qomatown crosshatches will blunder up to ask directions of an ethnically UI Qoman Beszél-dweller, thinking them his or her compatriots. The mistake is quickly detected - there is nothing like being ostentatiously unseen to alarm - and Breach are normally merciful."
To explore the interactions between the two co-located countries, Miéville uses a murder investigation that necessitates international cooperation between Beszél's Inspector Tyador Borlú and UI Qoma's Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt. We only really get to know the main protagonist Borlú, other characters remain quite undeveloped, and the dialogue is fairly sparse and intense.
As noir crime fiction I felt it was fairly weak, and the very neat resolution to the whodunnit has prompted criticism from some readers, but they miss the point. The crime and its investigation was really an excuse to have some, otherwise very rare, international collaboration between the two cities. I was interested in the murder but I was fascinated by the larger questions it inspired: Who/what/where is 'Breach'? Was 'The Cleavage', when the two cities were created, a joining or a splitting (cleave can imply either)? Is the mental barrier between the cities purely psychological, or is there an element of magic/fantasy/sci-fi i.e. is there a biological or technological reason why the citizens of the cities can 'unsee' their foreign counterparts? Is Orciny real, a synonym for Breach, or something else entirely?
Of these questions we only really get some resolution about Breach and Orciny. Breach is invisible, pervasive, extremely secretive and seems to possess limitless power when there is a 'breach': a failure to observe the city boundaries, which could be as simple as looking directly at a building in the other country.
"I had seen Breach before, in a brief moment. Who hadn't? I had seen it take control. The great majority of breaches are acute and immediate. Breach intervenes...Trust to Breach, we grow up hearing, unsee and don't mention the UI Qoman pickpockets or muggers at work even if you notice, which you shouldn't, from where you stand in Beszél, because breach is a worse transgression than theirs."
After all of his experiences of travelling to UI Qoma and entering Breach I expected Borlú to question whether keeping the split between the cities was actually a good idea, whether Breach was morally in the right or just a brutal enforcement of a ridiculous and pointless segregation, or even just to voice some self doubt about becoming part of that enforcement. But he never does. I'm still not sure how I feel about that: to some extent it seems in keeping with his character, he shows no sympathy for the unificationists, and perhaps there is even some fantasy/sci-fi explanation (government brain modifications?) for this deficiency, but it is at odds with his willingness to break the rules to protect Yolanda Rodriguez.
Nonetheless, an intriguing concept well executed.
Read more of my reviews at g-readinglist.blogspot.com
This book contains elements of noir detective fiction and police procedural. The novel's _voice_ is that of a detective and one dedicated to solving cases and very good at his job. It also contains elements of fantasy and, in the author's own words, "anti-fantasy." Fantasy expectations are often frustrated. It could even be argued that the book is alternate history and, of couse, the words "magical realism" will be uttered by someone. However, the central conceit is what makes the book urban/urban fantasy.
This is the first Mieville I have ever read and I understand that the spare prose style is not his usual way of doing things. Well, I like a veriety of prose styles and I am sure his more baroque work will suit me too.
What happens to the detective/protagonist in the end is predictable but in a satisfying way. Many of the other characters are decently realized, although all we see of them is what the protagonist sees, or unsees.
However, the book never really addresses the deeper mystery of the two contiguous and even overlapping cities. There is the obvious point of the book, that all of us see only what we focus on or what we have been trained to see (or "notsee"), rather than seeing everything that is actually there to see. Also, we all learn that there are boundaries, and some of those boundaries are dangerous to cross. So the cities work as allegory, but not so much as believable cities with a history and a reason for being the way that they are presented in the novel.
Mieville's work has been described by others as dark and depressive, and this book is no exception. This is one of those books I would just as soon never have read, in spite of its originality and craftmanship. It is ultimately off-putting. I do not remember the book with any pleasure. Still, I recognize that my opinion probably reflects more on me than on the author. Each reader will have to make his/her own evaluation.