China Miéville is a writer who has always worn his influences on his sleeve and his fourth novel The City & The City is no exception. Loathe as I am to burden any writer with the lazy old reliable reviewer tags of Orwellian, Kafkaesque or indeed Borgesian in relation to Miévilles’ latest novel, these terms are unavoidable.
This is not to say that Miéville is derivative in the derogatory sense, but rather that the he seems to have consciously chosen to inhabit the themes of these giants. Miévilles’ novel explores Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenarios, mingled with Borgesian mirrors and mazes as well as exploring the overlapping terrain of borders and boundaries beloved by all three of the above writers. That Miéville comfortably holds his own and breathes new life into their themes reveals to us a writer of startling confidence and indeed competence.
The story begins with the discovery of an unidentified disfigured female corpse. We are soon introduced to a burned out detective named Tyador Borlú to whom responsibility for the case is assigned. As the case progresses the detective realises things may not be as they seem and the powers that be *surprise!* cannot be trusted. ‘Been here before!’ I hear you groan and you have, but not with Miéville as your guide. In the City & The City Miéville has constructed an uncanny post-Soviet sci-fi noir landscape in which the story unfolds. As the result of civil war the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are divided. Uniquely the division is not split in accordance with the usual geographical convention of a border with each nation on either side of it. The two cities inhabit the same space where competing forms of architecture rub up against each other competing for space. Citizens of each city have been indoctrinated to ignore or ‘unsee’ the presence of the other.
Language and consciousness itself are engineered and constructed to impose a linguistic apartheid in the literal sense. Urban mythology also hints the existence of a third city, Orciny, which exists in the liminal spaces between the two cities. An elite and almost supernaturally omniscient police force called ‘Breach’ are responsible for maintaining the conceptual division between these two nations and have an authority which overrides that of both nations ‘disappearing’ those who contravene its conceptual division.
To solve the murder the protagonist, with the help of his possibly unreliable police partners from each side of the divide, must negotiate a labyrinthine landscape of various clashing factions. Interested parties such as ultranationalists, unificationists, opportunistic pro-apartheid politicians, two police forces and Breach all have a hand to play and their own agendas to pursue.Ever present throughout the novel are the ghosts of ‘wall’ cities such as Belfast, Berlin and the Israeli West Bank barrier.
The author explores the limits of nationalism psychologically, culturally and geographically revealing the more farcical aspects of national identity and illustrating that often it is not the otherness of our neighbours that creates fear and mistrust but rather the similarities. In The City & The City Miéville writes a compellingly clever story which owes a debt to the aforementioned authors and pays the said debt in by attaining its own voice en route to its conclusion.