It was quite sometime ago that a friend of mine passed along a copy of China Miéville’s book, The City & The City. As with an awful lot of fiction, no sooner had I decided it looked interesting than I set it aside in pursuit of other (probably less interesting) things. Anyway, I finally dug it out awhile back and for a time I set a few other things aside in order to pursue its own story. I had to unsee some work to read this book, so to speak, but that’s a sub-reference you (my own reader) won’t get for a few more paragraphs. Just keep reading and I’ll pretend I didn’t notice.
I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, though you may pick up a thing or two. I’m almost sorry about that.
This is a detective story. I hate detective stories, but I love the premise behind this one, and I can think of no better genre to explore that premise. The City & The City is definitely worth a read.
This book is narrated by Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a young woman. Borlú is reasonably reliable as far as narrators go, but there is a lot he doesn’t understand, and a few things he’s really not allowed to understand, or at least to acknowledge, which of course limits his ability to communicate with us in the novel. It isn’t that Borlú is consciously deceptive or even outright deluded, at least I don’t think so. But he he operates under extraordinary constraints.
His constraints are of course our own, at least until we put the book down and resume our interest in other things.
The central problem of this story is that Borlú lives in a world that is only partially available to him, and to the others in that world. Our detective lives in the city of Besźel, an Eastern European city in the modern world. At it happens, the streets of Besźel are interwoven with those of another city, Ul Quoma. You might think this is a quaint way of talking about the neighborhoods of a single community, but if you thought that, you would most certainly be very wrong. These are two very different communities, nestled right in together in the same physical space. The difference between them is maintained by the most stringent expectations about what one may or may not recognize, who one may speak with and who one may not. To see the wrong person is in fact a terrible crime in this world. To speak to the wrong people – unthinkable. And thus the cities are parted, not by physical space, but by social space maintained and enforced by an arcane set of expectations which Borlú and the others in this story accept at face value. This is simply how their world works, and the practice of discriminating between those one can acknowledge and those one cannot are, to the best of their knowledge and ours, absolutely inescapable
Borlú lives in Besźel, and the body of the young woman was found in Besźel as well, and so we begin the narrative in his half of this bifurcated universe. If you have begun to suspect the plot will wander over the boundaries of this world and into the City of Ul Quoma, then you are catching on. And if you were thinking that poses a problem for Inspector Borlú, then you are definitely on target here. It doesn’t help that the murder victim had been conducting research that threatens the boundaries between these communities, or that someone with power in both would seem to be manipulating the details of the investigation. Our narrator is thus caught between two worlds, allowed only to see one of them, even as his case spills out and over the boundaries between them. We (his readers) have only to follow along in the hopes that he will negotiate the boundaries between Besźel and Ul Quoma and find the truth of the matter before it destroys him.
It’s a rich story, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture its full impact. What most fascinates me about this book is Miéville’s sense of the boundary maintenance between the two communities. Physically contiguous, they are separated only by social artifice. How does one unsee people even as he passes them on the street? Is it a choice? A habit? Perhaps, even a pathos of sorts?
People in this world do actually see each other, of course, and if they didn’t, they would literally trip over each other (and worse), but they must not be seen to acknowledge each other. And so they carry out their lives according to an elaborate set of expectations governing just how one goes about unseeing what is literally right in front of them, and all around them, to be sure. Miéville put a lot of thought into how this works. His treatment of the subject is both fascinating and compelling.
What doesn’t work for me is the murder mystery itself, but then again, they never do. I always feel pulled along by such stories, teased by the obligation to try and resolve the central mystery, knowing full well that I will do so at precisely the moment the author finally decides to tell me what I really need to know. It’s not a game I enjoy, and unfortunately The City & The City is no different on this account. I wish I could say otherwise, but that’s how I feel about the central crime drama here.
The mystery of the crime itself is of course interwoven with that of the differences between the two cities. The one draws us (along with Inspector Borlú) into the other, gives us a reason to cross the boundaries, to explore regions we ought not even to see, and to learn a bit about just how these cities work. As I read the book, I must admit, it is the conventions of the city and the practice of seeing some things and not others that interests me. In effect, it is this premise of the story that provides the actual dramatic tension I feel in reading the book. I am never quite as invested in solving the crime as I am in learning how the cities work. So, the murder mystery leaves me a bit ambivalent. It’s not what interests me about the book.
I suppose we could explore the same theme with something a bit more like a high fantasy theme or a conscious exploration of mysticism, but that would have shed way too much trite all over the story. The theme of a detective novel lends the whole thing a pedestrian quality that keeps us focused on the perfectly human, even mundane, parts of this world. I can’t help thinking that’s critical to the full concept. This isn’t a story of mystical realization. It is a story about perfectly normal people struggling against perfectly mundane limitations to learn something that ought to be plainly visible to all. That this knowledge isn’t visible is uncanny, infuriating, and intensely interesting.
That which is unseen is, after all, right there!
But so is the act of unseeing.