The Stories that we Grew up on – “The City and the City” by China Miéville

The Stories that we Grew up on – “The City and the City” by China Miéville


On the plane ride from Singapore to London, I read China Miéville’s The City and the City in its entirety. It is a compelling read, and I must admit I had previously thought he was some sort of steampunk writer based on what very (very!) little I knew of his previous books (of which I admittedly had not read before), but I have to admit I found myself much more inclined to want to read him after I read that he had once said that he wanted to write a book in every genre — likewise I always think I would like to write a song that transitions into every other genre. So… I think we must have some things we can agree on.

The book’s style is hard-boiled; the novel was apparently written as as a gift to his terminally-ill mother with a fondness for the mystery novel. The language is very readable, and for a novel that invokes Kafka in its cover reviews, it turns out to be a completely precise and logical affair. But I guess this sort of preciseness is necessary to sustain the peculiar conceit of the novel’s setting being in a city that shares its physical space with yet another city. You would imagine this sort of “overlay” could result in a setting that is distortedly surreal, but fortunately I think it has been hemmed in very believably with restraint and control.

Now this is a spoiler alert! The crux of the “The City and The City” begins with Inspector Tyador Borlú, a seemingly Balkan-style detective being assigned to the murder case of a young North American archaeology student residing in Ul Qoman who was apparently murdered in Besz, and her being seemingly embroiled in some intrigue in her belief of the existence of “Orsiny”, a supposed third imaginary city which exists in-between the spaces of the cities of Ul Qoman and Besz.

Ul Qoman and Beszel exists as two cities which actually exist in the same geographical space, however, people in each city are required to “unsee” the other city – distinguishing them through “key signifiers of architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner; outlaw colors and gestures, obligatory details, and supposed distinctions in national physiognomies”.

So how does a city exist in the same space as another city? Perhaps it takes inspiration from the idea of quantum superposition (in its most layman definition) to be how something like an electron can actually exist in all of its theoretically possible states at the same time, but it is simply that when it comes to measuring or observing it, only one of its possible configurations is observed. It is funny, since George and I have discussed this (it seems, not too long ago), but I know I gloss over the technicalities of it, whereas he studied it (in part) as a thing in Physics (and Philosophy?). I think I am attracted to it as I have always viewed the city as a place with a separate layer of meaning that could be manipulated even without manipulating its actual physical architectures. I mean, this is the crux of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and the projects I’ve been doing for the last few years.

Anyway, in the novel, the idea is that Inspector Borlu is having a hard time because he had assumed this case would be handled by “Breach”, this nefarious, scarily ubiquitous all-seeing-eye that polices for illegal crossings, such as in the case of someone who might have crossed illegally from Ul Qoman to Besz (e.g: possibly the murder of the girl).

However, Borlu’s task becomes much more complicated when he learns that it will not be handled by Breach because it had actually been a legal crossing. And because the crossing had been legal, Breach was “not invoked”. We are also told that “(Breach) is not the passage itself from one city to the other, not even with contraband; it is the manner of passage (…) the smartest dealers, though, make sure to cross correctly, are deeply respectful of the cities’ boundaries and pores, so if they are caught they face only the laws…”

As the novel wears on and the investigation deepens, we find out more about the notion of “Orsiny”. The interesting part is when Borlu cannot tell what is potentially “Orsiny” and what is “Breach”. it is harder to tell even from reading the novel in general. If Breach is truly just the thing in-between, then is there truly an Orsiny? A place that everyone in Ul Qoma think is in Beszel and a place in which everyone thinks is in Beszel and not in Ul Qoma? A place that is crosshatched but even more than that? Where is Breach delineated? Is there truly a systemic transgression in which there can exist a secret parasite city where there actually should be nothing be “Breach”?…

I could continue but I think you can read it for yourself. Also, actually I am really excited about the neologisms – dopplurbanology, grosstopically, topolgangers, crosshatching, unseeing, unhearing… I think of course that the idea of unseeing or unhearing doesn’t require a novel in which they are all separated. This happens even in real life where people cannot agree on things but choose to be blind to certain scenarios, and this quote is particularly poignant:

“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 realise 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. There were folktales of renegades who breach and avoid Breach to live between the cities, not exiles but insiles, evading justice and retribution by consummate ignorability. Pahlaniuk’s novel Diary of an Insile had been illegal in Besźel (and, I was sure, in Ul Qoma), but like most people I had skimmed a pirated edition.”