She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realised she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.
Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.
As I noted a few weeks ago, it's Arthur C Clarke Award season again. I've already reviewed one of the shortlisted books, Gwyneth Jones' Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant. Next up is the much-praised The City & The City by China Miéville, which won the BSFA Award for Best Novel over the Easter weekend, and almost certainly won't stop there - it's nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula alongside the Clarke.
Highly thought of, then. For my part, I'm a huge admirer of Miéville's work; this is the third of his books that I've read (after Perdido Street Station and The Scar), but the first since we started this blog. (Victoria, meanwhile, discussed The Scar way back in the mists of our early days.) I was spellbound by Perdido Street Station from the very first chapter, and nearly ten years later, its opening scene lives on in my imagination: not so much for the vivid evocation of the noisy, pungent bustle of the city of New Crobuzon, but for one detail within that vista. The scene begins as follows:
A window burst open high above the market. A basket flew from it and arced towards the oblivious crowd. It spasmed in mid-air, then spun and continued earthwards at a slower, uneven pace. Dancing precariously as it descended, its wire-mesh caught and skittered on the building's rough hide. It scrabbled at the wall, sending paint and concrete dust plummeting before it.
Some people find Miéville's prose on the purple side; I can't get enough
of it. I love the writing here: the lively way the basket moves (spasms, skitters, scrabbles), the sense of depth in its descent and the texture of the world it interacts with (concrete dust). But when I was first reading the book, I loved the conclusion of its journey even more:
He tugged three times at the rope and the basket began a bobbing journey into the air. It rose above the lower roofs of surrounding buildings, buoyed upwards by noise. It startled the roosting jackdaws in the deserted storey and inscribed the wall with another scrawled trail among many, before it disappeared again into the window from which it had emerged.
There: "another scrawled trail among many". New Crobuzon is a city that - for all that it is extravagantly, gloriously invented - feels lived in. As someone who grew up reading secondary-world fantasy, Perdido Street Station came as a very pleasurable shock; whereas so many fantasy trilogies take place in cardboard worlds with thousands of years of implausibly unchanging history, Miéville gave us an environment that feels grimy with use, and in which the central plot is far from the only story taking place.
The City & the City finds Miéville operating in the rather different milieu of fantastical crime fiction, with correspondingly stripped-down prose. By way of comparison, here's the beginning of the new book's first chapter:
I could not see the street or much of the estate.
We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us.
Miéville still packs in the telling detail - dirt, vests, morning hair, rubber-necking at what we soon discover is a crime scene (this being a crime novel, it of course opens with the discovery and investigation of a corpse) - but the language chosen is more static and rather less baroque. A polaroid rather than an orchestration, then, but nonetheless careful in the way it reaches for a mood: still grimy, less vibrant.
That first line, as it transpires, is significant: this is a book centrally concerned with what we see, what we miss, and what we disregard. The narrator - here and throughout - is Tyador Borlú, a detective with the brilliantly named Extreme Crime Squad in the run-down city of Besźel.
Besźel, which may or may not be somewhere in eastern Europe, has the rather unusual distinction of co-existing with another city, Ul Qoma; not opposite-banks-of-the-river coexisting, mind, but sharing-the-same-streets coexisting. To (almost) all intents and purposes, Besźel and Ul Qoma are two entirely separate entities, each with its own government, language, laws, culture, and communications infrastructure - and each studiously intent on ignoring the other.
While many buildings and streets, and even whole areas, are 'total' (that is, belong solely to either Besźel or Ul Qoma), others are shared, liminal spaces - 'crosshatched' - where the possibility of cross-city encounters is ever-present ("There are parts where even individual trees are crosshatched, where Ul Qoman children and Besź children clamber past each other, each obeying their parents' whispered strictures to unsee the other"). The dangers of such areas must be guarded against:
The early years of a Besź (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.
In this way, people from the two cities can live next door to each other and never interact; indeed, they may never even consciously notice their neighbours, so saturated are their respective ways of life with the importance of unseeing. When Besź and Ul Qomans do notice each other, it is largely by accident and a source of considerable alarm to them; witness Borlú's flustered reaction in the passage quoted at the start of this post when his preoccupation about the case leads him to make a mistake in a less familiar part of town. The taboo is reinforced by the much-feared secret police, Breach, who swoop in to interrupt any transgression of the cultural border, even to the point of disappearing the culprits.
In short, the peoples of the two cities are divided not by walls, but
by attitudes born of tradition, a vast edifice of belief and prejudice; this is the way it's always been, and thus shall always be, even if some - there are always some - play with the boundaries:
There are places not crosshatched but where Besźel is interrupted by a thin part of Ul Qoma. As kids we would assiduously unsee Ul Qoma, as our parents and teachers had relentlessly trained us (the ostentation with which we and our Ul Qoman contemporaries used to unnotice each other when we were grosstopically close was impressive). We used to throw stones across the alterity, walk the long way round in Besźel and pick them up again, debate whether we had done wrong.
More serious, from the point of view of the authorities and everyone steeped in two-cities tradition, are the activities of the Unificationists, a banned organisation working to unite Besźel and Ul Qoma:
They had been accused of furtively propagandising among refugees and new immigrants with limited expertise at unseeing, at being in one particular city. The activists wanted to weaponise such urban uncertainty.
Ignoring what is deemed undesirable, then, is second nature to the people of the two cities; what, precisely, is undesirable to a given individual is dependent on what city they were born into, and thus which cultural tradition they were brought up in. Difference and division - the sense of who they are not - are crucial to their identities. As an allegory, it's clear, clever and versatile, such that there are almost as many suggested interpretations as there are reviews: this is Belfast, this is Berlin, this is Jerusalem, this is racial segregation, this is all of us ignoring the homeless. It put me in mind of certain cities in medieval Spain, where different religious communities co-existed - under separate bodies of civic law and devotional practice, languages and literary traditions - and where conversion meant assuming a new identity and leaving behind one's family. Not to mention the hefty power relations and spiritual pollution involved in such breach activities as mixed marriages.
Miéville's exploration of the dynamics of such a strong division in operation - how it survives, how it is policed, how it works within an individual's mind - are fascinating, not least because he does it through what initially appears to be a fantastical world, in which the people of the two cities literally cannot see each other. But this fantasy world's layers are gradually peeled back to reveal that what is really at work here is not magic, nor even an especially repressive state - Breach turns out to be an understaffed and far from omniscient arm of the bureaucracy - but simply human psychology and human prejudice. As one character puts it:
"Nowhere else works like the cities," he said. "It's not just us keeping them apart. It's everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We're only the last ditch; it's everyone in the cities who does most of the work. That's why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does."
Like the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma, we make and remake the world around us, sometimes without even properly realising what us leave out. Ignoring things doesn't make them vanish, though; what we don't want to see is still there, it is just marginalised and oppressed. When the detectives are interviewing witnesses, I found one person's dismissal of Ul Qoman speech as just "random noise" very telling; the assumption that one's own language (or way of life, or skin colour) is the default and everything else a meaningless or even threatening deviation from it is a prime example of this mentality at work on an unconscious, kneejerk level. (How often are the words of the powerless - women, people of colour - dismissed as 'gossip' or 'chatter' or 'gibberish'?)
As a narrative conceit, too, the divided cities have rich potential. Borlú's murder case, he soon realises, is one whose solution and implications lie not in one city or the other, but in both: victim and perpetrator(s) alike have breached; the more he investigates, the more clear distinctions are effaced. The need to navigate the complex web of bureaucracy and taboo surrounding the divide adds several layers of complication to both Borlú's job and the plot, as when he receives an unprompted phonecall from someone in Ul Qoma - offering information, but also danger by the simple fact of their conversation:
My informant should not have seen the posters. They were not in his country. He should never have told me. He made me accessory. The information was an allergen in Besźel - the mere fact of it in my head was a kind of trauma. I was complicit.
Despite all this, the novel never quite gels as more than an (extremely) absorbing thought experiment. The investigation never really grips - this may be something to do with the fact that I don't really read crime fiction - and Borlú is the only character who gets any notable personality. But while Borlú's intellectual curiosity and wide reading makes him a more open-minded narrator (that is, vulnerable to doubt and thus failing to unsee) than the average Besź might have been, it can make for some stilted prose:
I did not understand him the first time he said it. In Besź the word 'right' is polysemic enough to evade the peremptory meaning he intended. I had to mentally translate into English, in which I am passably fluent, to make sense of the phrase. His fidelity to the cliché transcended the necessity to communicate. Perhaps he would not be content until I snarled and called him a vulture, a ghoul.
In part, my mild disappointment with the novel can be put down to the
inescapable sense that I hold Miéville to a higher standard than I
do most contemporary novelists: an interesting failure from Miéville like this is still an intellectual firework, and well worth reading. In part, though, I just wasn't interested in the story that Miéville chose to use his dazzling conceit to tell. There are so many folkloric possibilities to this setting that I would rather have seen - one of which is alluded to, in fact:
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 realize 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.
Lots to chew over, then; but very little of it in the story.