Imagine a tale of two cities separated not at all by distance but by perception. Now insert a murder. This is China Mieville’s formula for The City & The City.
The novel carries the reader through this fantastical framework by means of the familiar – a police procedural, complete with aging police detective Tyador Borlú, a slightly cynical bachelor with enough curiosity to prod around the edges of a murder mystery no one wants him to investigate.
On its face (faces?), the city is absurdity. Mieville constructs a fabulous mosaic of a city, a modern thing drenched in a dual history. Its details are rich and raw and completely fabricated. The conjoined-twin cities occupy some uncertain spot, perhaps between Turkey and Bulgaria. They are fictional uncertainties, yet vibrant ones with the hallmarks of Mieville’s proclivity for settings richer and more engrossing than his characters. Mieville unveils this veiled place one neighborhood at a time, taking his time with the strange culture required to ignore the parts, pieces, and people of a foreign city that uses the same streets. He invents names and histories, even archaeological artifacts, that seem at once plausible and strange.
Mieville inserts twists on these real-world analogs — where Ul Qoma seems Muslim in spirit, it’s a strictly secular place with a recently thriving economy. Beszel is the run down eastern European world of bureaucrats, nationalists and “unificationists” who wish to see the split personality of the city obliterated. These tweaks give the cities more character, and thankfully skirt around the black hole of allegory.
The book is more powerful for it. The metaphor outgrows a tired East versus West analogy, and instead explores polarized identities so hard set against one another that they literally refuse to see, hear, and smell each other. The book seems prescient since its 2009 debut, though that’s more a testament to Mieville’s ability to capture human division more than current events.
Lurking in the cracks of it all is the Breach, an Orwellian threat everyone seems to fear should they break the convention of recognizing anything in the mirror image of their city. Breach’s strict and arcane law is prime, and Tyador comes face to face with it.
The mystery itself is intriguing, though not pulse-racing. More interesting are the perceptions Tyador and his rival city cohort wrestle with as they investigate. The book avoids navel gazing, but the thick and inventive writing force one to pay attention. This is a book to savor, layered with metaphor and intrigue, spiced with fantastic perspectives, without becoming intellectual medicine. It is a book not everyone will enjoy, but a rich and unique read for those who do.
The City & The City by China Mieville: ★★★★