Book #27: The City & the City (2009)

the-city-and-the-cityby: China Miéville
language: English
length: 373 pages
finished on: 16 February

This was the third book of China Miéville’s that I read in quick succession. Like the previous one, Embassytown, I finished this one in a little over a week. And I quite liked it, but not as much as the previous ones, as for me Embassytown was something of a high point.

This story is set in a fictional Balkan city that is split into two countries, or one metropolis split into two city-states – however, not in the traditional Berlin-like way that we’d expect of real-life cities, but randomly. A lot of effort is made in the narrative to introduce the concepts quite slowly, with readers perhaps more confused at the start, in a way that I’m getting used to with Miéville, so I don’t want to spoil it too much, but basically, the place has areas which are one city, areas which are another, and areas which are both (it’s called “crosshatching” in the story, along with quite a lot of other made-up jargon to describe their unique situation), but in those areas, one has to be very careful not to interact or even look at buildings or people from the other city. Doing so automatically calls in the secret police known as Breach, who take you away. (You can perhaps guess what happens to the main character already)

The cities are respectively the equally unpronounceable and “exotic” looking Besźel and Ul Qoma. The first resembles Slavic languages and the second resembles Turkish or Arabic, although a brief discussion about language at the start says that the respective national languages are basically dialects of one another, although it’s a situation in which you’d never want to actually say that to speakers of either one, because they have very strong national identities despite sharing the same space.

The story is about a police inspector called Borlú (this name calls to mind Spanish, to be honest), who finds out about a murder that’s been committed in Besźel city, but he has to travel back and forth to Ul Qoma to solve the mystery. The mystery itself is one of the strongest elements of the book, because a lot of elements are introduced early on to try and lead the reader and the characters astray, and it takes a long time for something coherent to really come out of the mess of plot points. Secrets are hinted at, a hidden third city is posited by many people, and different characters come into the limelight as the prime suspect at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really get the main conceit of the story: that two cities occupying the same space could ignore each other so thoroughly, and also why they’d even want to do that in the first place. The answer’s not really given (at least explicitly enough) at the end of the book, leaving us to figure out our own answer. I also didn’t really find a lot of it that interesting compared to the last book.

That said, I was still interested enough, and on a roll from the previous book too, that I finished the book in due course, in the same amount of time. Time to move on to the next one, I said to myself, although it’d be a couple more weeks before I found the means to acquire the next Miéville novel, and so in the meantime I busied myself with an Agatha Christie novel. Up next.

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