The City & The City
By China Miéville
In the far reaches of Europe, the citizens of two cities strive to unsee each other. The cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, are crosshatched sister cities divided for and by political reasons which even it’s own citizens cannot always understand.
When a woman turns up dead in Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is called in to investigate. The young woman turns out to be a foreigner studying in Ul Qoma. When he cannot take the case any further without causing an incident that might give him reason to see someone in the other city, he tries to turn the case over to Breach, the agency that deals with crimes that cross city lines. When his request is rejected, he is ordered to cross into Ul Qoma to investigate the murder himself. The investigation causes him to question many of his own beliefs and those of his own government.
A crime/mystery/police procedural is not part of my regular reading diet and this certainly falls into the not my normal reading fare category easily enough. What drew me to The City & The City was the invention of the two cities that are not supposed to see or acknowledge each other but exist in the same time and physical space. There are subtle differences — clothing, language, architecture — but if one were to look past these differences, they could in fact be the same place. The Breach, which is supposed to deal with infractions that involve the seeing of both cities, is interesting in that it only exists to clean up accidents or punish people who cross the border without going through proper channels. When someone is taken by the Breach, they are never heard from again and people are understanding of this because this is how things are in their cities. As they have been trained to do since childhood, they unsee it and move on with their lives. In some ways it’s frustrating because I started to wonder how the citizens of these two cities could live with this going on around them, pretending that the neighbor they can clearly see is not there because they actually live in the other city. At some point I realized that I had to let go of my annoyance with the unseeing thing and go with it.
The story does take place in modern time but these two cities seem to exist in a world all their own and the entire time I kept wondering how these two places are like they are. There is some explanation but I didn’t feel completely satisfied by it but I think Miéville wants you to feel this way about the cities. Confused by the political, societal, and legal boundaries that are Beszel and Ul Qoma. While the murder investigation pushes the plot along, the story is really about these two cities, the strangeness of their existence, and the politics surrounding them. While it took me a few pages to get into the story and understand what was supposed to be seen and unseen, it was worth it. I’m looking forward to reading another book of his that comes out the summer called Kraken. I think The City & The City was a good Miéville primer.