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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – The City & The City

Do you see the same city as me?

Within the geography of a city lie realities that differ with such drama it’s hard to reconcile their shared space. Which streets do you turn your gaze from, which neighbourhoods are skirted around, avoided altogether? There are entire sections of our urban topography that we not only ignore but deny entirely: brothels, drug dens, parliament, high-class restaurants; pick the enclosure and align the bias. It’s an elision done easily, with a minimum of thought or reflection. But what if we applied our thinking strategically instead of tactically? What if we picked half a city and, with dedicated deliberation, un-saw it, edited it from our physical existence? There, but not. This is the realm China Mieville’s The City & the City explores to startling effect; it’s a novel drenched in originality and seething with vibrancy.

Ostensibly a detective novel, it is set in an imagined corner of Europe, the dual city-state of Ul-Qoma and Beszel. These sister cities are bound by history and space, but divided by law and the will of the people. On the Beszel side of this labyrinthine architecture Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, investigates the murder of a woman. It’s a seemingly routine assignment that quickly draws him into a nexus of political, social and historical events which threaten not only the lives of those involved, but the cultural foundations that allow Beszel and Ul-Qoma to coexist.

The City & the City would stand as a riveting crime novel, but it becomes another beast altogether under Mieville’s expert hand. The idea in this case is the unique existence of
the Cities; two places whose citizens could, through the tangled borders, speak or touch easily—but their potential interactions are constrained by tradition and law. They don’t ignore each other, they un-see and un-sense, enforcing social realities and self-imposed segregation through recognition of signifiers and patterns learnt through a lifetime. It is a truly bizarre situation accepted like weather by those contained by it, yet baffling to outsiders.

As the book unfolds it becomes clear that the central threat to Borlú and the Cities is, and always has been, existential; it lies in their un- knowledge and un-perception of each other. To solve the case Borlú must decipher the boundaries of his cultural reality—he must see for the first time in his life.

The mindboggling actuality of the book is impossible to accept immediately; it takes submersion. The Cities breathe in the anomalous histories of Belfast, Jerusalem and Berlin and exhale a Siamese city that makes those places look whole. Melville understands how hard it is to comprehend and wisely doesn’t seek to remedy it with didactic asides or laboured exposition, instead he allows the unfolding story to bring our perception of the Cities to a natural fruition, their dimensions working their way into our brains unseen.

Mieville is a seriously talented writer, able at will to deconstruct genre and the accepted wisdom of established convention with his seemingly limitless gifts. Exciting, challenging and shocking, this is a stunning piece of fiction.

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