Tuesday, 18 May 2021

The City & The City


My friend Cathy left Rwanda recently after many years here. She sold most of her stuff, including a large book collection, which I had a rummage through. There were a few China Mievilles in there, and she told me this was her favourite. I took the paperback, but also found it on Audible 

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

I really enjoyed this one. A very unique concept: two cities transposed on top of one another in a sort of 4D space, and the problems that causes as the two cities make it illegal to acknowledge one another.

You cannot train yourself to successfully and sustainedly unsee and unhear - you do them all the time, but they also fail, repeatedly, and you cheat, repeatedly, in all sorts of small ways.


How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border.


The early years of a Bes (and presumably an Ul Qoman) child are intense learnings of cues. We pick up styles of clothing, permissible colours, ways of walking and holding oneself, very fast. Before we were eight or so most of us could be trusted not to breach embarrassingly and illegally, though licence of course is granted children every moment they are in the street. I was older than that when I looked up to see the bloody result of that breaching accident, and remember remembering those arcana, and that they were bullshit. In that moment when my mother and I and all of us there could not but see the Ul Qoman wreck, all that careful unseeing I had recently learned was thrown.

I like the part towards the end where top officials admit the system of 'unseeing' doesn't work, but they force people to try to comply anyway. So many rigged systems like that around the world, and the stress they cause people, trying to comply with something you can't possibly fully comply with. 

I read Perdido Street Station a couple of years back and ended up joining a political party. I'm no longer a member as I've stopped following British politics - ridiculously depressing stuff - but thankfully, I haven't felt compelled to join any other groups since finishing this novel. Cathy said she really likes Mieville's diversity and the way he can switch genre. This was definitely very different to Perdido and reads like a science-fiction gumshoe.  Nicely done, and one of my favourite insults:

If the techs are on it we're fine, but Briamiv and his buddy could fuck up a full stop at the end of a sentence.

All in all, good fun and a great concept.

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