The City & The City, by China Miéville
China Miéville’s second book, Perdido Street Station, made his name by reimagining fantasy as thoroughly as had M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. He followed it with two more novels set in the same world, and a children’s fantasy (Un Lun Dun) that was hailed as an instant classic and made the New York Times bestseller lists.
The City & The City, however, has not a single monster, demon or alien. It is, at first glance, a straightforward police procedural. When a murdered woman is found dumped on waste ground in Beszel, a rundown city somewhere on the eastern edge of Europe, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad realises that she comes from the neighbouring city of Ul Qoma, a more prosperous metropolis reminiscent, perhaps, of the modern sections of Istanbul. This presents Borlú with the central difficulty of his investigation, and the reader with the central premise of the book, and its one fantastic element.
The separation between Beszel and Ul Qoma is strictly maintained and more than physical, though it is possible — by negotiating serpentine bureaucratic procedures — to pass from one side to the other through the precincts of Copula Hall, an administrative centre for both cities. To breach the border elsewhere is the ultimate crime, so serious that it is handled by a shadowy authority (known simply as Breach) against which there is no appeal, and whose sanctions seem limitless.
The cities, in fact, exist not only side by side but, in some fashion, cross-hatched upon each other: the inhabitants of both have learned from childhood to ‘unsee’ anything from the other side. Borlú’s investigations quickly bring him into contact with politicians, radical groups which favour either unification of the cities or stringent nationalism, and an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma where the victim (an American, it turns out) has been working on a theory that a third city, Orciny, somehow exists beside the other two.
The tightrope trick of maintaining this central conceit is handled remarkably skilfully by Miéville; though the publisher predictably invokes comparisons with Kafka, there is nothing especially outré about the story, once the premise is accepted. Borlú uses fax machines, cell phones, grapples with paperwork, physical clues, unreliable witnesses, the sheer cussedness of events; the murder investigation plays fair and is realistic. Or realistic, at least, in the conventions of the detective novel, which is, like all fiction, a sort of fantasy.
In that sense, the hallucinatory aspects of the book owe more to Borges, or perhaps Les Gommes, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s subversion of the policier. Most impressively, Miéville’s underlying point, that all city- dwellers collude in ignoring real aspects of the cities in which they live — the homeless, political structures, the commercial world or the stuff that’s ‘for the tourists’ — is never laboured.
This is Miéville’s most accomplished novel since Perdido Street Station. It deserves an audience among those who would run a mile from his other books: it is fantastic in the careless, colloquial sense, too.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 20, 2009