In history and literature, there have been divided cities. Berlin, split politically; Belfast, separated by religion; Minas Tirith and Minas Ithil, beacons of light in Gondor, one of which fell to the shadow of Mordor. But none have been divided in the way of Beszel and Ul Qoma.
They share a physical space, yet the two cities are distinct, with different peoples leading segregated lives, forbidden from acknowledging the people who walk the same streets as them if they are dressed or walk in the manner of the alter city. Neighbours exist only steps apart, but live on the other side of a fluctuating but rigidly enforced border. While there are exclusive areas where each city is regarded as total, there are also areas neither fully in one city nor the other, leading to a maze of divisions, observed customs and enforced unseeings.
Although citizens of either state can pass through these crosshatches, they cannot interact for fear of invoking the mysterious organisation that monitors the border, the power known as Breach.
China Miéville is not a writer who is content to coast on the critical success of previous works. While each of his works is challenging in structure and style, The City & The City is a radical departure even for a man with a history of reinventing himself, with only his constant awareness of local politics belying his authorship.
With terse dialogue and minimal superfluous description, this is a police procedural, concerned with the facts as observed by Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Unlike the collage of perspectives of his earlier novels, The City is written entirely from the point of view of our chief detective; locations are of importance only as possible crime scenes, individuals as witnesses or suspects, and there are few glimpses into the internal lives of characters.
Borlu is an engaging and entertaining guide through the cities, although, practical and pragmatic, it is unlikely he would regard himself as such.
Investigating the murder of an unidentified woman dumped in a skate park in Beszel, he stretches the patience of his superiors and antagonises local agitators, apparently small time but with connections to his own force, while tracing a path that inevitably leads to neighboring Ul Qoma. Here his determination to follow the investigation regardless of consequence strains his enforced partnership with his host, Ul Qoman Senior Detective, Quissim Dhatt.
Alibis will crumble under his interrogations and new information will supplant old, mirroring the archaeological dig where the victim worked, digging up the buried history of the cities and secrets that predate the division – secrets that some may have killed to keep concealed.
But the investigation is by no means the whole story, for it would be nothing without the cities themselves. Less obvious than the extensive passages detailing the intricate history, architecture and texture of their settings that were a hallmark of his previous novels, these cities are still woven through the novel, uncompromising in their incomprehensible individuality.
Indeed, while the cities may be unlike any previous creation in imaginative literature, Beszel is not some childish fantasy realm of magic and cloaked figures chanting spells. As in all China’s work, the society depicted is real, weathering a proud and fragile existence on an unspecified fringe of modern Eastern Europe, complete with internet access and mobile phones.
Unearthing the truth will uncover more than just a random killing – others have interests and investments in the two cities, and whether they remain divided.
Suspecting there may already have been a cover up in his homeland, how can Borlu now trust strangers in a foreign state who may have agendas other than justice? Only Constable Lizbyet Corwi, back in Beszel, is dependable, but she is nothing more than a voice on a crackling phone, one half of snatched conversations in code, both aware that either side may be monitoring.
Unsure who he can trust in either city, Borlu faces another problem – how do you investigate a murder across an existential border without violating that border yourself? He cannot risk stepping beyond his remit for fear of invoking Breach, unless he can prove the crime itself was a violation of Breach, in which case their ruthless authority would supersede his own.
Sparse and full of momentum, the writing is deceptively simple, but with complexities hidden in every paragraph. Like optical illusions, passages of apparent meaning flick back and forth with dual interpretation when the reader becomes more familiar with the concept of unse
eing – intentionally ignoring pedestrians and traffic on the crosshatched streets, the shadows cast by buildings in the alter city. While some writers are content with a rug pull once, perhaps twice, in a novel, here China twitches the carpet almost every other paragraph, forcing a new perspective even as you reinterpret the words.
The City and The City
Unfortunately, the great care and skill with which the novel is crafted make it all the more disappointing when the measured pace and intricate structure is betrayed in the final chapter. It is never China’s style to topload exposition, but nor is it dramatically convincing to conclude with a whole chapter of cumbersome explanatory dialogue. As a result, the final unmasking of villain and motive are less dramatic than what has preceded them.
The disappointing end does not, however, make the novel as a whole anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable and unique achievement.
Following Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, The City & The City won China his third Arthur C. Clarke award for Best British Science Fiction novel. Whether this year’s Kraken will be his fourth when the 2011 prize is announced is a mystery that is yet to be solved.