Monday 6 July 2009

The City And The City by China Mieville

I really like China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, but I'm well pleased with diverse bibliography he's building up - three secondary-world fantasies, a work of urban fantasy, a fantasy novel for teenagers, a collection of mostly horrific short stories, and now this.

THE CITY AND THE CITY (what a great name for a novel - I'd love to commission a whole gaggle of authors to write books with that name) is a detective novel, set in a city where reality is oddly skewed. It follows Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu's investigation into the death of an unknown female murder victim. Borlu lives in an East European city called Besz; a city that co-exists in mutual avoidance with another East European city, called Ul Qoma.

Parts of the cities are total - either completely Besz or Ul Qoma. Others are crosshatched. Still others are disputed. The inhabitants of the cities go to great lengths to unsee each other and each other's cities - if they cross over by any means other than the single official channel available, they are in breach, and will be dealt summary justice by a mysterious third-party organisation known simply as Breach.

At some point in the past the two cities either diverged or converged; no one is really sure, least of all the North American archaeologists who work the digs in Ul Qoma, fertile with odd, anachronistic artifacts, barren of explanations. The dead woman turns out to have been one of these, a brilliant but maverick scholar who at one point gave credence to a madcap theory that a third city, Orciny, somehow exists in the interstices of the two cities. The theory is discredited, even by the man who first came up with it, but soon he, and another young researcher who has been showing interest in Orciny, come under threat.

Along the way, we're treated to a fascinating exploration of the political and personal dynamics of living in this sundered city - a journey that in many ways is reminiscent of living in any city in a world riven with conflicts and self-imposed divides, but taken to the next degree.

Borlu's investigation lead him into murky areas, and the several layers of deception are stripped away to arrive at the solution. The resolution is much less fantastic than I'd hoped - quite sordid in fact, which says something about the fact that Mieville doesn't expect commerce, politics and morality to interact in any more salubrious a way than in our world, no matter what reality conditions prevail.

I personally expected a bit more than this self-contained, and as a mystery novel, complete narrative. We never really get to know more about why the city and the city co-exist in this strange way, whether the sundering is somehow real or only an elaborate cultural norm, an extreme stratification of the way in which people of different cultures or classes ignore each other in the streets of any city you'd care to sample. Certainly, outsiders, animals and young children seem to have considerable trouble keeping the two cities separate. I'm inclined to think that the whole thing is symbolic, it's in the mind, but why? Besz sounds vaguely Slavic; Ul Qoma has Turkish overtones - is this a multicultural city that has taken segregation to a metaphysical extreme? Or have two physical cities somehow, fantastically, come to overlap in the same time and place?

Perhaps it's better that Mieville didn't resolve these questions - a complete reveal can often be no more than a cheap pay-off when the author was more interested in raising questions and sparking unease than in answering questions and placating readers with a made-up resolution. That would certainly be consistent with Mieville's past mode of operation. It may well be that this novel will rise in my estimation with further consideration. As it stands, I would have to say that it is indeed very good, but somehow didn't quite satisfy me.


Space Bar said...

How did you already get a copy?! Deep envy!

Don't you love the cover?

JP said...

Landmark has copies, in Bangalore and Bombay at least, and the Madras one should have it too.

I like the red cover - the blue one the US edition sports seems somehow less apropos.

Space Bar said...

ah...i think i've only seen the blue cover then. with the second 'city' reversed and shadowy?

hyd is on nobody's literary map. sigh.

JP said...

It actually is a nice one too, but red becomes Comrade China!

I spent my boyhood in Hyderabad - ages 1 to 11. My father used to run a bookshop in Lal Bahadur Stadium, which we closed when we moved out, sorry. Although I see Higginbothams still has a shop in the stadium.

Space Bar said...

Oh wow, really? I passed by that curve of the road most Sundays getting to the Sunday book bazaar at Abids.

Recently acquired an A.A.Husain's gift voucher at a quiz. Haven't been to that places for years! Spent my childhood buying my parents anniversary gifts of Tintins and Asterix from the upstairs.

And Comrade China the Trotskyite is a good title for some as yet unwritten book!