Thursday, April 18, 2024

Book Review: THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Miéville

Book Review: THE CITY AND THE CITY (2009) by China Miéville 

This highly original novel is thematically related to China Miéville's novel EMBASSYTOWN (2011). Both books are based on how language and abstraction can shape our perception of reality. It's a detective story, mixed with Magical Realism, and cannot easily be classified as either Science Fiction or Fantasy.

(Tellingly, the novel has won awards in both genre categories.)

Imagine there's a city-state named Beszel, located somewhere in the Balkans part of Eastern Europe. It's post-Soviet, not wealthy, and a bit backward - like, say, Romania in the early 2000s. 

An experienced police detective in Beszel, Inspector Borlu, starts investigating the brutal murder of an American woman. But the investigation soon extends to another city-state, named Ul Qoma.

The inspector's work becomes involved with the complicated political entanglements and historical rivalries between the two cities... and he tracks down a possible conspiracy connected to the murder.

Now, where do you think that other city Ul Qoma is located? Next to Beszel? Across a river? Underground?

No. Both cities exist in the same place.

And yet, the people living in one city are forbidden to admit that the "other city" is there (this rule applies both ways).

So citizens of both Beszel and Ul Qoma have to live as if they know the other city formally exists - as a separate place and rival culture -  but never admitting the presence of (or bumping into) the "other people" among them.

Obviously, this state of things complicates Inspector Borlu's work - there are convoluted rules for "crossing over" from one city to another, and a secret police to keep the order.

The murder investigation allows the reader to get to know the two cities in great, gritty detail. They feel very much like realistic, lived-in places with an Eastern European sensibility.

By far, the greatest feat Miéville pulls off is to describe how the protagonist and the other characters go about not seeing (or "unseeing") the parallel city with all its people and activity. Even down to mundane details such as: How do you drive a car in urban traffic, when you're not allowed to see (or bump into) half the traffic?

This really shouldn't work - and yet the reader is pulled in.

The ending was not what I expected. I had anticipated something different, as it seemed the story was building up to some big revelatory or mysterious climax.

The book circle I'm in had a very interesting and lively talk about THE CITY AND THE CITY. When we discussed the ending, someone put it like this: The climax may seem anticlimactic, but is consistent with China Miéville's recurring themes. He's very much into writing "anti-romantic" or "anti-mythological" stories.

Nevertheless, the book is absolutely worth reading. If I would compare THE CITY AND THE CITY with the works of another author, I'd say Jorge Luis Borges comes close.

As with EMBASSYTOWN, a grain of doubt remained in the back of my mind. I "got" the concept, but even so... was it too illogical? Too self-contradictory? (Like when a child has a new, weird idea and gets very excited, but the grownup can see the fundamental logical flaw that makes the idea unworkable.)

Even when I admit that small doubt, THE CITY AND THE CITY remains a fascinating, thought-provoking experiment in Magical Realism. Recommended.

(FOOTNOTE: There is a BBC miniseries adaptation of the novel. Are you curious about how the TV series visually solved the problem of showing people not seeing something that exists in front of them? So am I.)

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