It was when I was living in London that I first became aware of China Miéville. I remember looking around a tube carriage on the Central Line and seeing four people sitting in a row all ensconced in one of the author’s distinctly covered tomes. It’s taken me some time (and, rather aptly, two cities) to manage to breach into one of his strange, fantastical realms.
The City & The City is a crime novel which takes place in… Well, it’s actually quite hard to say where it takes place. The two cities of the title are called Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are actually city-states, with the former reminiscent of a struggling post-soviet republic and the latter of an eastern European dictatorship that has embraced western consumerism. The confusion results from the fact that the two cities are physically interwoven, with areas of over lapping jurisdiction, or ‘cross-hatching’ and enclaves of each within the boundaries of the other. Sounds strange but there is actually a real world example in the small Belgian/Dutch areas of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau. The difference in the case of Beszel and Ul Qoma is that citizens of each city are banned from acknowledging anything happening or any person currently on the other side of the divide. To do so is a serious crime called ‘breaching’.
The plot itself – following the attempts of Inspector Borlú to investigate the murder of a young student – is fairly straight-forward and, as might be guessed, takes the Inspector to both cities in search of the killer. As he travels back and forth between the two cities, he becomes entangled in an apparent conspiracy, all points of which suggest the existence of a shadowy third city, existing in the gaps between the other two and controlling both.
The book is clever, the ideas are engaging and the central premise of interwoven cities very interesting, however on the whole the story left me feeling a bit flat. The grand and intricate setting provides a backdrop to quite a mundane finale and I never felt I got under the skin of the central characters. As a vehicle for exploring interesting themes – on what we choose to see and not see, on divided cities and divided lives, on the little lies that make society work (or at least hold together) – the twin city concept has strong potential. But in this case it seemed like an opportunity missed. Then again, the book has won a whole bunch of awards, so what do I know.
Next up we explore more divisions. This time between the haves and have-nots, with the eminent economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism. Stranger than fiction? Almost certainly.