The City & the City by China Miéville takes the form of a murder mystery amplified by Miéville’s unique ability to find richly suggestive fantasy metaphors about our world. This one is about the art of unseeing or seeing only what you are permitted to recognize in the midst of the doppelgänger cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These city-states occupy the same territory, yet the buildings, streets and people of each are invisible to the other.
The residents train from childhood in what they are allowed and forbidden to see. Any infraction of the rules leads to Breach, and violators are taken away by the mysterious forces that suddenly appear. Breach is a law unto itself, feared by all, the strict enforcers of the detailed rules that control what people can see and interact with. The strange art of unseeing what is right in front of you is crucial to survival.
Citizens of one city do not dare see those of the other, even though they are walking right by them in the street. They unsee each other’s vehicles while driving, neighboring buildings in so-called cross-hatched areas and even the fleeting images as they look out of trains cutting across the interwoven sections of the cities.
“It was, not surprisingly that day perhaps, hard to observe borders, to see and unsee only what I should, on my way home. I was hemmed in by people not in my city, walking slowly through areas crowded but not crowded in Besźel. I focused on the stones really around me—cathedrals, bars, the brick flourishes of what had been a school—that I had grown up with. I ignored the rest or tried.”The City & The City, Kindle edition, p. 36
The story begins when the body of a young woman who turns out to have lived in Ul Qoma turns up in Besźel. This first part is a police procedural in which Inspector Borlu and his talented sidekick Corwi search Besźel to identify the corpse and then try to have the case turned over to the mysterious authority of Breach. But that request is denied when CCTV footage reveals that the van that dumped the body followed legal procedure to get from Ul Qoma to Beszel. Despite the obvious nature of the crime, it is not one that involves Breach.
So Miéville launches us into the second part of the story in which Borlu travels to Ul Qom. This involves going through an international checkpoint only to emerge in the same place but this time with the ability to see everything that he had been previously forbidden to recognize. And all the familiar crowds and buildings have to be unseen. His Ul Qom partner, Inspector Dhatt, shows him the sights:
“I looked at what Dhatt showed me. Unseeing, of course, but I could not fail to be aware of all the familiar places I passed grosstopically, the streets at home I regularly walked, now a whole city away, particular cafés I frequented that we passed, but in another country. I had them in the background now, hardly any more present than Ul Qoma was when I was at home. I held my breath. I was unseeing Besźel. I had forgotten what this was like; I had tried and failed to imagine it. I was seeing Ul Qoma.”The City & The City, Kindle edition, p. 134
The discipline of unseeing and of choosing what to see resonates deeply for me since it is such a neat exaggeration of what we all train ourselves to do as we navigate the real cities we live in. Neighborhoods we avoid, people who become invisible, divisions of society we no longer see, even though they are so basic a part of the social fabric. Yet Miéville never lectures. He lets the metaphors suggest what they will, and that makes them all the more interesting.
Much of the story turns on whether or not there is a third city, Orciny, somehow existing within or under the other two. This legendary city may either be mere legend, with no basis in fact, or it may be running everything. Miéville skillfully weaves this mystery throughout the story, leading to a third section, which has the feel of a thriller. Inspector Borlu unravels the case convincingly in a satisfying ending, full of twists that take full advantage of the city within a city theme.
The story is told in the first person by Inspector Borlu, and while we feel drawn deeply into his world, there is a sense in which his narrative is, if not unreliable, incomplete. It’s the problem of every mystery story. The detective conceals all the interesting connections he is making in his mind that ultimately lead him to spin out the full tale of murder when he comes face to face with the culprit.
That doesn’t bother me so much since every story depends on withholding key information for a climactic reveal near the end. But there is another aspect of the structure of the book that does leave me hanging a bit. Switching modes from procedural with a detective-sidekick theme, to a second part with mismatched partners and then to a third following a suspense-thriller pattern leaves the stories of some characters not fully told. They are people I want to know more about, but, as in life I suppose, they are cut off from the main character when he switches his environment, his job, his life.
Each book that China Miéville writes is uniquely brilliant and challenging in its own way. I find each of the seven of his novels I’ve read to be unforgettable and worth rereading. For me, he is one of the great and most completely original writers of this era.