Book review, China Meiville, Crime, The City and the City, Weird fiction

The City and the City, by China Meiville, 2009

When reading this review, if you do, please remember my policy on spoilers – which is that I will probably use them. I don’t do so deliberately, I just find it hard to write comprehensively about something I have read without writing about the things that other readers might consider spoilers (bearing in mind of course that there is no meivilleuniversally agreed definition of what constitutes a spoiler in the first place). ‘The City and the City‘ is particularly difficult to review without reference to the central concept. If you avoid blurbs, plot summaries, reviews, tv adaptations etc, and read this novel without any preconceptions (I would agree by the way that a ‘pure’ approach to reading any novel is impossible – the reader will be influenced by their knowledge of the author, the cover illustration, etc) you become slowly aware that there is something unusual about the setting.

The central concept in this otherwise orthodox police procedural novel is extraordinary. Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the central European country of Besźel, investigates the murder of a foreign student. The victim was involved in debates about the complex relationship between Besźel and its neighbour and rival Ul Qoma. From early on there are some unusual aspects of Borlu’s narration. He talks about ‘unseeing’ a passerby, with no explanation of what this means. Borlu is Beszel born and bred, so his instincts as a native are deeply ingrained – he sees nothing out of the ordinary in what follows. Slowly, the true nature of Beszel and Ul Qoma’s unique relationship is revealed. The cities occupy the same geographical space, but preserve their separation through rigid adherence to ‘unseeing’ – being aware of but refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other – its buildings, vehicles, citizens and so on. This practice is enforced by a sinister entity known as Breach. Separation is assisted by differences between the city and the city – clothing, architecture, even gait. Residents are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a serious and swiftly punished crime.

I suspect Meiville drew inspiration for this separate but the same concept from the situation in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 90s, where neighbouring countries fought bitterly over small areas of land. This separation could have arisen from this kind of conflict, although we are told it dates to before recorded European history. Inevitably there are many complications to this way of life. The cities have areas where ownership is unclear, and where people of both cities walk and drive alongside one another. The only way one can legally pass from one city to another is through border control – even though such journeys involve returning to the same physical space one has just left.

Meiville’s construction of this world is thorough – he thinks through all the practical aspects (what if there is a traffic collision between cars from the different cities?) – this is not just a whimsical concept but a fact of everyday life for the citizens of the two cities, which make investigation of cross-border crime a logistical and conceptual nightmare.

Within this world, the murder investigation unfolds, and it is not a criticism to say that in this respect the novel is a traditional police procedural. Suspects are interviewed, other crimes are discovered, hidden forces interfere with the investigation, all in a routine manner. This is not of course a simple murder, even if where it was committed had been a less complex environment. A conventional buddy relationship develops between Borlu and his Ul Qoma partner, and Borlu’s sidekick does what every good sidekick does, providing back-up and insight without stealing the limelight.

In crossing genre boundaries, any author runs the risk of pleasing fans of neither original genre. Meiville does what he can to mitigate this risk, but his weird fiction fans are the most likely to have been disappointed – other than the setting or context, this is a very recognisable world. I really enjoyed it, and while I recognise it is probably not typical of Meiville’s work, I will be interested to see to what extent that is true, or whether my fairly uninformed impressions of this author are correct.