Sunday, 29 September 2013

Week Thirty-Six - Jeanette

The City & The City by China Miéville (2009)
Recommended by Dan

Dan moved to London only a few weeks before I left. I knew of him, of course; he was a teenage friend of Jude (she writes of him here), and I’d often heard her talk about him, flushed with shared adventure and affection. I remember saying to Dan as I left the capital, you’re great, and I wish I could know you better.

Lovely Dan! I was right that he was great, and justified in my wish to know him better. Last time I saw him was at the Duckie club night a couple of months back: we hit the floor in rare style. Amongst the unbridled joy, I remember getting upset when Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ came on. (I love Robyn, and I love that song, but those lyrics, sweet Jesus Christ.) Jude gave me a pep-shout over the Scando beats, while Dan bestowed a glowing solidarity smile. Thus I danced (and not on my own).

I do like a cracking detective novel. I particularly enjoy the ponderous end of the genre, where everyone’s a bit dour and the author sprays the bodies with philosophy as well as gunfire. I recall reading Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow in the mid-1990s – it was the book de jour then – and being very impressed with just how expansive yet specific its plot was, the story as bleak as the Copenhagen skies.

The City & The City is – as its title spells out – similarly tied to a place. Or, rather, two places. Beszel is a metropolis somewhere at the very east of Europe, its crumbling architectural grandeur intersected with modern squalor.

Ascension Church is at the end of VulkovStrász, its windows protected by wire grilles, but some of its stained panes broken. A fish market is there every few days.

Beszel has a ‘topolganger’ city: the brasher Ul Qoma.

The Old Town of Ul Qoma was at least half transmuted these days into a financial district, curlicued wooden rooflines next to mirrored steel.

I love the concept of twin cities.

When the Yugoslav conflict was raging, and Novi Sad was always referred to with ‘war-torn’ preceding it, I truly understood the worth of the twin city theory. Novi Sad could have been Norwich. My heart ached for our city siblings over in Serbia, ethnically ripped apart, bombed, polluted, destroyed.

Beszel and Ul Qoma, however, are twinned in an altogether more fantastical way. They exist in the same geographical space, overlaid with one another. The city streets are woven, yet each space remains separate. Not quite parallel, but never integrated.

I could not fail to be aware of all the familiar places I passed grosstopically, the streets at home I regularly walked, now a whole city away, particular cafés I frequented that we passed, but in another country.

The citizens of Beszel and those of Ul Qoma are not only separated by language and custom, they are actually forbidden to acknowledge one another. If they accidentally look, they must ‘unsee’ immediately, or they breach, and breaching is punished by Breach.

Still with me? Good. What’s that you say? Not complicated enough for you?

A secret colony. A city between the cities, its inhabitants living in plain sight. […] Unseen, like Ul Qomans to Besz and vice versa. Walking the streets unseen but overlooking the two. Beyond the Breach.

This is Orciny, a third city. Overlaid with the other two. Not quite parallel, but never integrated. Or does it even exist at all? That’s what Mahalia Geary, a foreign student, was trying to determine. And then she wound up dead. Inspector Borlú of the fabulously-named Extreme Crime Squad follows her trail: it takes him through Beszel and Ul Qoma, forcing him to confront physical, metaphysical, and emotional borders.

The sleuthing aspect of the book is good at the beginning, but unfortunately I worked out Geary’s killer two-thirds in (although not the exact reasons for her death) and I hate being right in detective fiction. It feels as if Miéville used the crime as a glorified MacGuffin; he wanted to explore the idea of liminal physical space and consciousness, and he decided a murder was a sufficiently dramatic way to do so.

The City & The City does fail, for me, as a detective novel and a police procedural, but perhaps that doesn’t matter too much, for it succeeds in its loftier ambitions. The separated Besz and Ul Qoman inhabitants spoke to me as a stylized version of what actually happened in some parts of Eastern Europe at the fall of communism: the new nation-states wrought fresh borders and, in cases like the former Yugoslavia, these came with a rhetoric of intense nationalism to pit neighbour against neighbour.

I found the novel’s idea of ‘unseeing’ still more powerful. Inspector Borlú is constantly seeing (and then forcing himself to unsee).

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and I should not have seen her.

In real life, we are all too adept at unseeing. If it doesn’t fit with the narrative we know (or the one we wish for), we quickly unsee it, sometimes without our conscious mind even taking a role in the process. A thing can be as blatant as bloodstain on a white sheet, but if we assiduously unsee, it will not alter the story we tell ourselves. However, the awkward fact remains: evidence of the eye has a nasty habit of being far more reliable than evidence of the heart.

We can, and will, forever unsee that too.