China Mieville – The City and The City

Imagine a city that is two cities. Two cities on the same terrain. Two cities where the citizens of each are forbidden from looking into the other world. This means that the inhabitants are required and culturally conditioned to ignore the other city. They must act as if it is not visible, and must guard their eyes, deliberately unseeing any vestige of the other city. This is all policed by a powerful, but hidden organisation called Breach. These cities ‘grosstopically’ occupy the same physical space, but have different laws, economies and rules.

The two cities are Beszel

…these were hobbled factories and warehouses. A handful of decades old, often broken-glassed, at half capacity if open. Boarded facades. Grocery shops fronted with wire. Older fronts in tumbledown of classical Besz style. Some houses colonised and made chapels and drug houses: some burnt out and left as crude carbon renditions of themselves.

And Ul Qoma

Near the Ul Qoma exit is the Temple of Inevitable Light…But that ashy daylight illuminated more and more vivid colours than in my old Beszel. The Old Town of Ul Qoma was at least half transmuted these days into a financial district, curliqued wooden rooflines next to mirrored steel.

The story begins in the fictional city of Beszel and moves to the second city Ul Qoma. These cities have different political approaches and levels of development. Beszel could be likened to a run-down Eastern European city, with ancient cars, broken down buildings and even wolves roaming the city, while Ul Qoma has gleaming towers and fancy hotels.  Beszel has underground groups like Unif and the Beszqoma Solidarity Front. Ul Qoma is more tightly controlled, with only one political party.

When the body of a young woman is found dumped in Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlù is called to the site.

She lay near the skate ramps. Nothing is still like the dead are still. The wind moves their hair, as it moved hers, and they don’t respond at all. She was in an ugly pose, with legs crooked as if about to get up, in a strange bend. Her face was to the ground.

In this desolate place surrounded by rubbish and trash bins a few shifty teenagers are hanging around. Before questioning them, Inspector Borlù introduces himself as a member of the Extreme Crime Squad.

He discovers the identity of the young woman, an American PhD student studying in Ul Qoma, and he discovers she was dead when she was dumped in Beszel. Surely then, this is a job for Breach? But no. Further investigations reveal that the  woman’s body was transported in a van and transferred from Ul Qoma to Beszel through Copula Hall, the  mandated legal crossing point.  Breach does not police murder, only breaches of the crossing procedure.

Smuggling itself is not breach, though most breach is committed in order to smuggle. The smartest dealers, though, make sure to cross correctly, are deeply respectful of the cities’ boundaries and pores, so if they are caught the face only the law of one or other or both places, not the power of Breach.

With Breach refusing to take on the case, Borlù has to get permission to cross over to Ul Qoma to continue his investigation in conjunction with the Ul Qoma police. And here he comes upon the story of a fabled city, a third city, Orciny.

Is Orciny another power? Is it connected with Breach? Is Doctor David Bowden telling the truth when he repudiates his earlier book on the subject. And was the murdered girl too deeply involved in the story of Orciny?

In spite of the strange fantastical elements there is a convincing strain about political manoeuvering for capital investment. Canada invests in Ul Qoma. Beszel has to court the Americans.

Inspector Borlù finds the answers he seeks, if not quite in time to save another life. Because of things he has done he is now in Breach. His life will change permanently.

This is my eighth book in my Great Reads for 2021. It has left me with many questions and some vivid images. I’m sure it works as allegory; Berlin comes to mind, but I need to ponder upon it. I will certainly be reading other books by this author. His writing, as you can see from the small excerpts above, is poetic and compelling.

The BBC has made a four-part series of his book. The world looks good. The actor is good. But I wonder what China Miéville thinks about the addition of a quite unnecessary love interest? It annoyed me greatly. But then I am easily annoyed.

A tiny little book for my September Great Read by an African woman writer Mariama Bâ.


18 thoughts on “China Mieville – The City and The City

  1. Looked it up — fascinating book, with high praise and many awards; compared to Borges. One reviewer said that the point is that “all city-dwellers collude in ignoring real aspects of the cities in which they live – the homeless, political structures, the commercial world or the stuff that’s ‘for the tourists’.” [], which was intriguing.

    Thanks, Gert!

    1. Yes, turning a blind eye. Such good writing. But the TV version is a travesty. We skimmed through the rest of it last night and the mangling of the book was even more evident. Unforgiveable.

  2. I can imagine it being a very difficult book to adapt, to bring to life successfully on the screen. It also strikes me as a quite a layered book with lots of political resonances, big and small (e.g. the way we often avert our eyes if there is a homeless man or woman on the street, begging for assistance).

    1. Exactly. The tale and the setting has many resonances. I suppose you are right in saying it would be a difficult novel to adapt, but the world is done well. It is the plot they mess about with.

  3. Unnecessary love interests are always annoying and have ruined countless novel adaptations (none of which I can bring to mind right now.)

    This sounds like the tale of two cities in one – and perhaps that is all the cities of the world. London and New York for sure. Maybe some Scandinavian cites are not replicas of two nations. It’s nice to imagine so.

  4. I see from my own review ( that you—or perhaps it’s Other Gert—have already read and enjoyed this a few years ago. Miéville’s concept is wonderful, and if the achievement of it is a little less than perfect that doesn’t take away from its haunting quality, whether as an allegory or as a commentary on authoritarianism.

    1. That was Other Gert who recommended it to me when I was seeking ideas for my Great Book reading for 2021. I much preferred the rather neutral charactisation of Tyador Borlu in the book to the wincing and squinting of David Morrissey in the TV version .
      Surely you didn’t accept the love story or Corwu being revealed as Breach which goes against so many aspects of the book?
      Grrr I can feel my blood pressure rising…

      1. I accept that most novels adapted for the screen become different beasts, and that’s certainly the case with TC&TC in its TV version. Is it worse? In some ways yes, just as you outline. But I still found the refocusing apparently required for appealing to the ‘ordinary’ viewer interesting: we lost any Cold War feel à la Third Man in favour of a generic thriller with SF overtones.

  5. Hello Gerts! I’m behind in my blog reading and have several of your posts to catch up on. This one immediately drew my eye, as I love fantasy (I’m picky about it, however; no more Tolkien ripoffs) and I’ve been toying with the idea of reading China Miéville for some time now. I was glad to see that you find his work worthwhile.
    Frustrating about the TV series. I find that many sci-fi/fantasy novels are very poorly adapted for the screen. Just think of David Lynch’s Dune — need I say more? If the BBC series is available to me, I may still check it out; doing so before I’ve read the book may make it go down better.

        1. Yes don’t listen to us(me) We are rather stuck in our ways. Although Other Gert is rather fond of watching television , especially Nordic Noir, I can’t cope with anything that induces fear.

  6. I read this a year or so ago and agree that it was fascinating – I thought he handled the concept really well, and found that part rather more interesting than the crime element.

    1. Indeed the strangeness of the overlapping worlds was what drew me. The main character not especially interesting, but the writing of little grabs of atmosphere was appealing.

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