The City & The City

For reasons I don’t remember now – probably because we caught a bit of the film on tv – when I was about twelve my dad gave me a copy of Gorky Park and told me to get on with it.  Growing up in a Polish family meant I was probably more aware of the USSR and the Communist Bloc than I was of the UK’s political history; at least, when I started Gorky Park, the only murder mystery I’d read set in Britain was Sherlock Holmes and that was what I expected.  The nature of the book threw me.  The names and naming systems were strange, the period unfamiliar, the atmosphere weird – everything felt dark and shadowed and cold – and the sense of the ever-watchful state was so pervasive I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  I felt accomplished when I finished though, admiring the craft that went into it, rendering a time completely alien to me in such a way that I still remember the relief of not being there.

In the best way possible, I felt that when I finished The City & The City.  At least I don’t have to unsee cars in another city on my road, or people wandering through the streets, or buildings with other names.  At least I don’t live in fear of Breach for an accidental misstep.  At least the ability I have to “unsee” something is the usual skill you get as a Londoner on public transport and not a requirement of my life here.  At least neither of those cities are mine.

I’m feeling almost apologetic for not liking The City & The City more because it’s such a brilliantly rendered world it had me looking up halfway through and wondering why I wasn’t seeing Ul Qoma, which is quite a reality-bending achievement for a 370-page book.  The languages, names, cultures – Mieville is one of the finest world-builders out there today, if not the best, and The City & The City is an exemplary novel of exactly that.  It’s about those cities, &, their intersection, where they “crosshatch”, the blurred lines, the moments of transgression, the breaking and keeping of the rules.  It works so well partially because Mieville put it right in our world with our mobiles and GPS and internet, not only of our reality but of our time, and gave us the most mind-expanding concept to take in; Beszel and Ul Qoma, both in the same time, similar geography but also the same exact place, both laid over the other, both with their own names and histories and cultures and cuisine and politics, internal and external.  Beszel is run-down and decaying where Ul Qoma is more modern and wealthy, leading to all sorts of tensions with each other and with foreign powers.  I assumed this would be hard to cope with but Mieville’s written The City & The City in a deceptively simple style so any struggles I had were my own moments of befuddlement.  It’s a confusing book at times but ultimately rewarding, no doubt about that.

So why am I not entirely sold on it?  At no point was I really worried for anyone; the plot didn’t feel convincing enough for a murder mystery, nor did it feel like there was a real sense of danger.  The revelation of the guilty parties at the end didn’t feel like a light turning on in a dark room – instead there was a scurrying through the pages to find where that character had turned up before.  The sense of mystery and foreboding was perfect but it didn’t feel justified by the plot.

Most importantly, I felt no connection to any characters alive or dead, nor did I yearn for any sense of justice.  The style, the atmosphere was perfect, but the characters felt like shadows against such a wonderful backdrop of the Beszel/Ul Qoma/Breach backdrop, outshone by the grand idea, and the one thing that kept me turning the pages wasn’t a need for resolution but to see where Mieville was going with his cities.  I wanted to uncover every little facet of the cities and how they came to be split and yet be whole, and how Breach worked, what political stresses resulted from such a weird and wonderful situation.  In that respect, I felt completely satisfied.  There was never a break of believability about the cities, though the practicality of it is, in hindsight, a bit strange (while reading it never occurred to me so I can’t see it as a real criticism).  What’s missing is a good empathetic personality.  Inspector Borlu is almost there, but there’s too much distance between him and the reader and though he’s likeable, there’s nothing to really latch on to.

Perdido Street Station is still one of the best books I’ve read, and I’d probably put the Beszel/Ul Qoma situation somewhere up with New Crobuzon in a list of my favourite fictional creations – it was a great way to frame ideas about national identity, history, perception, belief.  I can see why people adore it and wish I did too, but just as much as I love a good full-blooded bit of excellent world-building, I want characters I care about and to feel an emotional link to the plot.  I didn’t get that, but I did get to enoy Mieville’s imagination and intelligence for a few hundred pages and that’s always good.  It’s a marked change from his earlier work, and I have my issues with it, but it’s definitely worth reading because it’s completely unique.


4 thoughts on “The City & The City

  1. Alex C

    Must admit I didn’t enjoy The City & The City as much as the Bas Lag books. Perdido Street Station’s one of my all-time favourites and it utterly altered my view of the Fantasy genre forever.

    It’s probably his most ambitious work yet though because he’s made an entire book out of the Kafka-esque two-cities-in-one device, something that many writers would stuggle to run with for more than a short story. Borges for instance wouldn’t even have tried to – and this kind of thing was his stock-in-trade.

    “the characters felt like shadows against such a wonderful backdrop of the Beszel/Ul Qoma/Breach backdrop, outshone by the grand idea” – I couldn’t have put it better. It’s really not even about the characters/plot – the city and the city is/are more than a setting/s – it IS the novel. The characters are mainly there to illustrate this extended metaphor of the abstract nature of borders. That’s why sometimes it feels a little cold and the characters are a bit hard to connect with I guess.

    I had a discussion when it first came out about whether it’s “unfilmable” by the way – what do you think? I reckon with copious amounts of CGI – occasional fleeting, shimmering overlays of each city and its inhabitants over the other – it could actually be done in a way where audiences could grasp the concept, but whether it’d be done justice is another matter…

    1. ewasr Post author

      I think it’d have to be handled by a scriptwriter with a very deft hand and a director from the David Lynch school – able to work with the weirdness of the parallel cities without jolting the audience from the world, as it were. I don’t think it’d be done justice in its book form, but there could be an argument for a script with expanded characters and plot that would deviate somewhat from the book (by someone who knows what they’re doing, of course). It’s a mostly visual conceit after all, so even in a short film it’d have quite an impact. The CGI would have to be seamlessly top notch though, none of that green-tinged cut-and-paste crap. For some reason in my mind it’s only viable in black and white, in proper Soviet or film noir style. Sepia, maybe. Something very dark and shadowy. So, I think it’s possible, but only as very cult fare.

      “Ambitious” is exactly what it is, and what it felt like when reading it. Less a work written to entertain, more to expand his skills, the genre and, possibly, to play with genre itself. All noble aims, and to a certain extent the cities as main characters *need* to be the main aspects of the novel, but first and foremost I like human characters in fiction more than things such as setting. Mieville is one of few writers I truly rate who I can let get away with a bit of colourless characterization without it lessening my opinion of him.

      I must read Borges. He’s one of those names permanently on my to-read list that I’ve never got round to picking up!

      And thanks for the great comment, it’s the first one! Much obliged!

  2. Alex C

    No problem – always a pleasure to talk about good books & authors!

    I like your adaptation vision: Y’ever see ‘Stalker’ by Tarkovsky? He directed the original ‘Solaris’, based on the Stanislaw Lem novel and I think he might’ve done a very fine job of adapting The City & The City in its full moody, monochrome glory. T

    You’re in for a treat reading Borges for the first time – sometimes wish I could Eternal Sunshine myself and read him again afresh. He, Bioy Casares & Italo Calvino set my imagination alight in a way that current genre stuff mostly doesn’t. Penguin does a really good complete collection of his fiction works, and their collections of his poetry and non-fiction are pretty good too.

    1. ewasr Post author

      My “to read” pile is almost waist height now and Italo Calvino is somewhere in the middle of it. I’m due to raid my friend’s bookshelves in a while and she’s a big, big Borges fan so hopefully I can indulge then. Or the next time I’m in Foyles. Whichever comes first!

      I have seen Stalker but a very long time ago – Polish family pointed us at anything Soviet-era and told us to investigate how bad it all was – but Solaris is a big favourite, even though I’ve yet to read the book. You’re right, he would have been fantastic, he had a good eye for the weird, for characters and the odd, shadowy aspects of things. I can’t think of any current directors who’d be willing or able to attempt it though. Not sure if that’s because I just can’t think of any names or because most directors will want to fill their work with sex, explosions and extended chase sequences…


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