China Mieville’s “The City and the City”–Alterity and the reader divided

The concept of alterity, or the “otherness” of another person or culture is one familiar to most serious readers from contemporary cultural studies.  This sense of division crops up in one’s ordinary life along any cultural divide when one is aware of someone or something as opposed, different, “alien,” strange, or just plain foreign.  But as China Miéville postulates and fairly convincingly demonstrates in his metaphorical crime story/fable The City and the City, the other is oneself, divided against oneself.

There are two cities connected by their disconnection in the book, one Beszel (from which comes the hero and narrative voice, Inspector Tyador Borlú), and the other Ul Qoma (from which comes his official counterpart SD Dhatt).  I call this story a “metaphorical” fable (and fables and the like are often more usually connected with allegory) because Miéville points out, in the appended interview in the book, that though people have tried to read the book as an “allegory of the relations between the West and the Muslim world” in at least one instance, that he is in line with Tolkien, who felt and expressed a “‘cordial dislike’ of allegory.”  Miéville explains that he sees allegory as does F. Jameson, as a “‘master code'” to “‘solve'” the story and find out what it’s “‘really about.'”  But as he points out, “….[I]f it’s totally reducible in a very straightforward way, then why not just say that thing?”  The success of the author’s formula for creating his world is in fact more related to metaphor, as Miéville insists:  “Fiction is always more interesting to the extend that there’s an evasive surplus and/or a specificity.  So it’s not saying there are no meanings, but that there are more than just those meanings.”  With this warning, I will now explain a little more about the novel itself.

Miéville has indicated that his novel The City and the City is primarily a crime story; he says a crime novel is in essence “a kind of dream fiction masquerading as a logic puzzle.”  He invokes the noir tradition as well, and in the novel we see many of the elements of the standard Chandler or Hammett novel, the multiple available women, the jostling for supremacy between the official forces of law and order and the rogue cop or detective, the setting of city streets and dust-blown landscape as a metaphor for the aridity and starkness of official enquiry.  The noir detective gets involved with his subject and therefore regularly falls afoul of the law, sometimes without penalty and sometimes in such a way as to make a lasting change in his own life.  The latter is the case in this novel.

But the most startling difference for the reader between this and the average crime novel will be what could be called without stretching too much the fantastic element of the fiction:  the two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the same physical (or “grosstopical”) space, but the citizens themselves and a mysterious officialdom called “Breach”–after the name of the ostensible crime of being aware of someone from the opposite city–police the citizens to make sure that they don’t “breach,” or respond in any way to any sensory input from the other city.  Sections of the city, streets, buildings, and even floors of buildings, hallways, and etc. are divided between the two cities, and it is the responsibility of every “good” citizen of each city to be self-vigilant.  Even when accidents occur on the streets or in traffic, it is left to Breach to sort it out, while citizens scramble to “see” and “unsee” only what is in their city or the other city, respectively.

Into this mix of restriction and limits there is cast an archeological “dig” run by a Canadian university, a dig which is situated largely in Ul Qoma and which seems to refer back to a time before the “Cleavage” which either split the cities apart or put them together, depending on which theory you follow.  Foreigners from other countries and cities in the world are accepted and tolerated, but must go through stringent training in “unseeing” and “unsensing” the opposite city, and there are sometimes failures or setbacks.  One such is one which starts the book out, the crime which Inspector Borlú and his subordinate, a “smart young woman” named Lizbyet Corwi, are investigating.  A female body is found in an alleyway in Beszel, but after much investigation, it turns out to be the corpse of a young foreign student from the digs in Ul Qoma, and thus seems to require an invocation of Breach to investigate it.  Nevertheless, by some apparent fluke of higher administration, which looks more and more ominous and paranoid-making the more time that passes from its inception, instead of invoking Breach and passing the case on up, the “higher-ups” leave it to Borlú to cross officially into Ul Qoma as a consultant and work with his colleague in the other city, SD Dhatt, to solve the crime.  Not only must the two detectives deal daily with the spectre of Breach and breaching which they themselves are in danger of as they pursue their case, but they have also to investigate academic reports of the mysterious third in-between city of Orcziny, which is believed by some to dominate and rule the other two.

With what might be otherwise considered a minor grace note of composition, the author has named the main hall of meeting between the two cities “Copula Hall,” which is a very strong symbolic element because of what “copula” means:  “1.  A verb, such as a form of be or seem, that identifies the predicate of a sentence with the subject….2.  Logic.  The word or set of words that serves as a link between the subject and predicate of a proposition.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition).  As has already become evident from the narrator’s story as he tells it, it’s not that one does not actually “see” the other city of Ul Qoma from Beszel or vice-versa:  it’s rather that one has been trained arduously to ignore all signs of it, to neglect to notice, to practice an informed ignorance of it (and “informed ignorance” is obviously a logical and not just a poetic oxymoron).  Because one is basically practiced in “lying” to oneself and others, whichever city one is in, and one can only be whole and whole-hearted when one is in breach, the main meeting hall between the two cities is called “Copula Hall” because it describes and contains a lie and not a lie at the same time:  it is “is” at its source, the reality of two sister cities in one space at the same time.  “Is” is a contradiction of “you don’t exist because I don’t see you,” or “out of sight, out of mind.”  And yet because there is still the fiction of one city being the subject (whichever one comes from) and the other being the object (the one which one goes to address at Copula Hall), the hall “lies” because it suggests the divide between the two.  The divide is only a logical one, but it has been given flesh by its citizens, who act it out and embody it every day.  So, Copula Hall is the present form of the cities’ incarnation in the book, whereas the archeological dig is the past form, quickly becoming the future as objects from the site become part of the puzzle.

All in all (and I use the expression suggestively), this book contains one of the best arguments ever for practicing contemporary civic (not civil) disobedience to the traditions of shutting out one’s neighbor and all the “noise” of a supercivilized society, and “breaching” to notice what’s going on around one.  You just never know what or whom you might see.  And one doesn’t have to be allegorical about The City and the City to feel that there is in fact an argument intended:  a dystopia is a dystopia, and this one is frighteningly real and put in terms of our contemporary life, not all that far from what we can really understand as our own embattled and perhaps embittered conditions.  It’s not necessary to be disingenuous, to say, “Here we are, or here we will be,” or even “here we were”; it’s only necessary to take in the total city-scape picture of The City and the City to feel that our awareness of ourselves and others is being called into question, and that there are ways to do this as China Miéville would have it, which don’t rely on the traditional allegory form.  Just as a metaphor carries meaning across from one realm of discourse to another, so our ability to relate ourselves to the characters in the novel, particularly to the narrator, carries his meanings to us though he be only a character and we real flesh and blood.  And this, I think, is just as the author, all quibbles about terminology aside, would have it.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

4 responses to “China Mieville’s “The City and the City”–Alterity and the reader divided

  1. You had me at Chandler but as always you are introducing me to uniquely fascinating books and for this I award you the totally made up Good Prize, treasure it!


    • Thanks. Hey, I treasure the made-up awards more sometimes than I like the real ones–especially when (as in the case of the “Good Prize”) they carry an ambiguity as to whether my intellect or my morality is being praised! Nothing like a two-for-one prize.


      • Not only is it a choose your own good points to be praised award but you don’t have to go nominating other people for it and all that other hard work…a three-in-one award, not you can feel really valued!


  2. Thanks, Ste J! That makes me feel really special! I knew I could count on you to think up the perfect award.


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