The City & The City

This post is about China Miéville's The City & The City, which I finally got around to reading. I'll try to keep it fairly spoiler-free, but I make no promises. (And I am going to discuss the central conceit, but then, it's pretty clear by fifty pages in or so.)

TC&TC (it seems point-missingly wrong to shorten it to The City) is a police-procedural pastiche that takes place across two cities somewhere on the fringe of Europe called Besźel and Ul Qoma. The hook is that Besźel and Ul Qoma are culturally and linguistically distinct but "grosstopologically" superimposed on the same place. They are not side-by-side, like Berlin; they are intermingled, right down to the level of individual buildings. The citizens of each learn from childhood to "unsee" the citizens and material culture of the other, so that when on a street "crosshatched" with alternating Besź and Ul Qoman buildings, they only see the buildings in "their" city. This system is enforced by an enigmatic and seemingly supernatural authority known as Breach, who deal with even minor transgressions of these rules so brutally and inevitably that any interaction with the other city is unthinkable — not even criminals dare mess with Breach.

(This setup is both disappointing and encouraging: disappointing because I was secretly hoping that Miéville had come up with a workable depiction of a city built on the plan of a Möbius strip or a blivet, but encouraging because at least the idea he had come up with was original.)

Miéville is careful to avoid simple allegory for any one real issue. Besźel and Ul Qoma are evocative of all artificial divisions: class structure, where the rich on their way to lunch studiously ignore the poor sweeping and slumped on the sidewalk; religious differences, where ostracism and sometimes violence define the limits of the acknowledgeable; even totalitarianism, where everyone agrees on pain of death to "unsee" the fact that their rulers ride in BMWs past breadlines that don't move all day.

So everyone is free to impose their own clé on TC&TC and for me of course that is language.

It's not all my fault. Miéville makes language an issue right from the start. The story begins in Besźel, where people are named things like Shukman, Lizbyet, Vilyem: part of the Indo-European tradition, but with exotic, unplacable Eastern European trimmings. As the story progresses, the narrator constantly digresses to remark on linguistic matters: a drug called feldexplained as a "trilingual pun: it's khat where it's grown, and the animal called 'cat' in English is feld in our own language"; an aside about "the public has a right to know" as an idea seeping into Besź journalism due to "British or North American owners," plus a note that "in Besź the word 'right' is polysemic enough to evade the peremptory meaning [they intend by it]"; a line of dialogue "It wasn't that hard, and at least it made it easier to gudcop," explained thus: "we had stolen gudcop and badcop from English, verbed them."

So, two things: (1) Besź is positioned relative to English, and (2) the narrator — "Tyador Borlú" of the Extreme Crime Squad — is specifically addressing someone who doesn't know Besź. Given the lack of a "papers-found-in-a-suitcase-in-Hungary" framing device, I think it's fair to go one step further and assume that Borlú is addressing us: English speakers, the Anglosphere.

Ul Qoma's proper nouns are similarly evocative, spelled with lots of Q's and liberal use of the article "Ul." This pseudo-Middle Eastern orthography exploits obvious existing east-meets-west traditions, although I would not be willing to bet that Miéville didn't end up with "Ul Qoma" by working backwards from the internet domain .uq as an homage to Uqbar. In any case, Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, feels more "distant" than Besź from the perspective of an English speaker, even though we are explicitly told that they "share a common ancestor." (Perhaps the proper nouns are a substrate.)

(Besź and Illitan are also written with different scripts, which to my mind echoes the distinction between "seeing" and "unseeing": a script you cannot read cannot be "seen" all the way through to its meaning; a script you can read cannot not be.)

Borlú speaks Illitan, but, significantly, he has to resort to English — and the cliched English of cop drama at that — to get his point across at times: "'Can you make a... I don't know it in Illitan. Put an APB on him,' I said in English, copying the films." ("Yeah, we call it 'send the halo,'" replies his Ul Qoman interlocutor.)

English, the language of neoliberalism and all that is antithetical to tiny, distinct cultures, is the reference point and the common ground for Besźel and Ul Qoma. English is explicitly identified as the vantage point from which the oddness of Besźel and Ul Qoma's situation can be acknowledged (for to speak of it in Besź or Illitan would be tantamount to admitting knowledge of things one should be unseeing, and therefore Breach). In fact, it's subtle, but a surprisingly large proportion of the novel's plot relies on English as a medium for development — without expats and executives and postgrads hacking callously through the semiotic tangle of Besź-Ul Qoma in search of the lost cities and fabulous riches they are said to conceal, not much of the story would be left.

So we have a story that is positioned relative to English, narrated in English, all about the effects of English. This feels like a metaphor for cultural hegemony of the sort that allows dissent only on its own terms, which makes the fact that the story doesn't end in dramatic revolution and "freedom" for Besźel and Ul Qoma a shocking anti-Hegelian twist concealed within apparent stasis.

The three writers most mentioned in reviews of TC&TC are Kafka, Orwell (specifically 1984, of course), and Borges. The comparison to Kafka feels unfruitful because there is no cruelty or inhumanity: the situation is absurd, but the rules are clear and it's quite possible to obey them and live a fruitful life. Even the outsiders thrown into Besźel and Ul Qoma treat the situation as a cultural quirk rather than a psychological torture, and no-one in or out of the cities seems any more alienated by their position than the rest of the modern world is by their own. The Orwell link is even more tenuous because instead of the proverbial boot stamping in a human face forever the two cities are simply regular cities with certain idiosyncratic (and, really, not especially oppressive in and of themselves) bylaws. Breach have absolute power but not totalitarian power: you can do whatever you want as long as you don't Breach, and it's made clear in the novel that while "thoughtcrime," temporarily imagining oneself in the other city while on a crosshatched street, does theoretically exist and would be prosecutable, Breach do not act on it.

Borges, though, I can see. The whole novel feels like an elaboration on a Borgesian idea, and while there is no air of Kafkan cruelty or Orwellian oppression, the novel is saturated with melancholy Borgesiana: libraries and alleyways and paradoxes and loopholes. On the other hand, while Miéville is an excellent writer and in particular very good at distinguishing the voices of his characters, The City & The City is ultimately a detective story, peeled layer by layer through hard work and elbow grease. This makes the story more vivid but also dilutes the sheer intellectual thrill of a Borgesian idea, and to be honest at times I found myself wishing Miéville had left some things a bit more oblique — left more for me to do with his idea.

Popularity factor: 17


For some reason, simply by reading your review I got the vibe of "you tried so hard to impress me, so I should be feeling impressed right now" that I had the whole time I was reading Mieville's Un Lun Dun. A feeling, of course, that never arises reading Kafka, Orwell, or Borges.


That's put a bit uncharitably, but it is true than unlike K/O/B, Miéville is self-consciously incorporating capital-T Theory. It doesn't negatively affect the story in my view, although it might be a contributing factor to the overstuffedness I mention in that last paragraph. (For what it's worth, I've never gotten a showing-off vibe from Miéville -- I think he just really is that sort of thinker, and it comes out in his writing. I haven't read ULD, though; actually this is the first non-Bas-Lag book of his that I've read. I really enjoyed the BL books, though.)


I thought your review was going to end by comparing this more explicitly to the lives of expats: English speakers in Japan, Japanese speakers in certain parts of America. Certainly, it is possible to live and work in Japan while not knowing anything about the country besides how to get to GasPanic or whereever and order a biiru. Vice versa, I've heard of Japanese who didn't much improve their English while living overseas. The internet also makes this all so much worse, since you can Facebook/mixi yourself into thinking you never left home.

Max Pinton:

I enjoyed it. I explained the premise to a couple people and they were interested enough to ask me about it once I'd finished the book. It's a great concept and I kind of wish it would be made into a movie so I could see that moment when Borlú becomes aware of both cities.

I haven't read it yet, but his Embassytown supposedly has a major language element, so that might be my next Kindle download.


Hm, for the first time I've been made interested in reading a Miéville novel.

"This makes the story more vivid but also dilutes the sheer intellectual thrill of a Borgesian idea."

But what about the knife fights? More than some silly sheer intellectual thrill tosh, "Borgesian" as an adjective BEGS for knife fighters!


I was turned off by the first book I tried, Perdito Street Station. It felt like had been bloated up with all the research and ideas he couldn't bear to cut out. By your review I'm not certain his ways are changed at all, but the premise still seems interesting enough to pick up TC&TC at some point.


I think Mieville is very much that kind of person-- he is hyperliterate and has so much to say (this opinion is partly formed on seeing him give a little lecture last night as part of the British Library's celebration of Gormenghast). It's clear he's the kind of nerd who is intensely well-read, to the point of using reading pronunciations for some fairly common words but casually using 'autophagic'. But I like that aspect of his writing, the unapologetic nerdiness of it. The City & The City's next on my list, then Embassytown, which also seems up your alley.


I'd strongly, strongly recommend Mieville's latest, Embassytown, which is all about language. One of the major plot points comes down to a linguistic distinction "this / not-this" that comes straight out of Zhuangzi. No book has ticked quite so many of my boxes in some time.
(And if he's giving Borges a shout-out in TC&TC, then Embassytown is a love letter to Ursula K. LeGuin's creations.)

language hat:

A lot of people I respect love Miéville, and both this and Embassytown have ideas that sound like they should make for a book right up my alley, but in practice, when I've tried to read him I've quickly become irritated. (Cf. DFW.)

language hat:

I suspect it may have to do with the "nerd who is intensely well-read" thing; I cannot, offhand, think of an author I respect who could be described as a nerd, or who would have used "reading pronunciations for some fairly common words." Someone like Borges, who has been mentioned as comparable on the level of ideas, is the polar opposite of a nerd. "Ideas" are not irrelevant to good fiction, but they certainly do not make or break it.


Yes, nerddom is a good quality to focus on. Ideas about ideas vs ideas about reality. It's probably also worth noting that I don't know any Miéville fans who aren't also sf readers to some extent, which inevitably means more tolerance for books carried by plot and ingenuity more than, well, beauty.

Carl: The expat thing occurred to me but I couldn't really sustain it, ultimately. I see where you are coming from but I don't think the equality is there, or the superimposition really: expats in Japan might live in a bubble but they are definitely aware of their subordinate status to the majority culture. Maybe people living in more immigrant-heavy countries would see it differently.

Leonardo Boiko:

> I cannot, offhand, think of an author I respect who could be described as a nerd, or who would have used "reading pronunciations for some fairly common words."

Damn, <i>all</i> I know are spelling pronunciations. Will never be Borges, or a rockstar.


I don't think incorrect pronunciation has ever been a barrier to being a rock star.


I can think of one who achieved success despite a pronounced (if intermittent) stutter.

Leonardo Boiko:

A “well-read nerd” sounds kind of like the polar opposite of a rockstar though, and my strange pronunciation is a direct consequence of liking books too much. Oh well, I could always get into prog, math rock, or shoegazing.


Don't know if this influences your opinion about whether a nerd can be a rockstar, but Mieville couldn't hardly move at the signing afterward for the young, predominantly female fans that surrounded him. Some women, clearly of loose virtue, don't care about how one pronounces words.

But still, none of us will be Borges.

Tim May:

I liked <i>TC&TC</i> a lot. What bothered me, though, was that I couldn't decide on how to pronounce Besź names...

I'm looking forward to the mass market paperback release of <i>Embassytown</i>.

(For some reason this post didn't show up in my RSS reader, though the feed in general seems to be working OK and the posts on either side came through.)

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