The City And The City

City reflection wide

In a Guardian interview two years ago, China Mieville gave my favourite demonstration of how a writer sees the world:

“When I was moving into my new house a few years ago we were having all our kitchen stuff delivered and my then-partner got off the phone, turned to me and said ‘the fridge men are coming’. Now, it seems to me that there are two kinds of people: those that hear that sentence and think ‘oh good, delivery of the white goods’, and then there’s those people who imagine a kind of enormous cyborg thing…”

His new book, The City And The City, requires all its characters to view the world differently. They live in two very different cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, that share the same geographical space. Beszel is a crumbling mittel-European city whose industries are fading, its citizens drab. Ul Qoma, on the other hand, is booming, an emerging economy flinging up towers of steel and glass. They speak different languages, have different-sized plugs, and a call between the two is international; yet the borders are drawn between streets, houses, even individual floors. Ever since a bitter separation, several hundred years ago, both cities’ citizens have been brought up to “unsee” each other, even on the crowded streets.: if the next door building is on fire, but in the other city, you can watch on CNN but not in life.

This separation is enforced by Breach, a strange, all-powerful police force who seem to manifest from nowhere whenever a border is broken. They are fast, silent and brutal, and there’s no court of appeal. But there’s also a growing band of nationalists, some on each side of the border, who seek to reconnect the cities, and restore them to their pre-separation state. Tension between the two is growing, so when a young American is murdered, her death an apparent violation of the border, it’s soon clear that this is not going to be an easy case to crack.  And so we meet Inspector Borlu, a downbeat middle-aged cop in the best tradition of Chandler. When he realises the political implications of the murder, Borlu wants to hand it straight to Breach. But nothing in Beszl and Ul Qoma is that simple, and Borlu soon finds himself crossing the border, undercover in a city that overlaps his own. And as the bodies begin to pile up, it seems there’s yet another city lurking in the walls …

The City and The City, appropriately enough, is three novels distilled into one. There’s a classic noir mystery that is, as Borlu notes, “more convoluted than a dancing worm”. There’s a thrilling conceptual adventure as Mieville explores his world, coining bright new words and jargon — police cars are bruises; overlapping places, brilliantly, topolgangers — as he goes. And there’s a third story, hidden in the others: the story of how we all live like this. Because that’s Mieville’s real subject here: how all of us learn to unsee what’s around us, to ignore the poverty next door. Like Kafka or Bulgakov Mieville cloaks his commentary in fable, and in doing so has written one of the most entertaining, and most serious, novels of the year.

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