Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review of "The City & the City" by China Mieville

Despite finding itself only marginally within the genre, it’s no coincidence that The City & the City took home every major sf&f award for 2009-2010 (except the Locus).  Mieville’s seventh novel is a brilliant pastiche of detective noir, Orwellian vision, and Kafkian undertones.  In need of introduction to high school classrooms and university syllabi for its examination of stereotyping and the inadvertent manner in which we code differing people and cultures, the book is truly deserving of the accolades it has received.  

A nod to Raymond Chandler and the other writers of detective noir, The City & the City is on the surface a near perfectly told mystery of murder and political intrigue.  From the first page the dead body of a young woman is found by the workaday police detective Tyador Borlu, and the story moves from there.  Finding its way through various layers of government, rebel political factions, and goons, Borlu’s road gets riskier and more tricky in discovering the killer.  But where The City & the City earns its points for originality is in the singular nature of its setting.  Unlike any book written before, Detective Borlu’s troubles truly begin when he discovers the young woman was murdered in the other half of the city – the forbidden half.  Forbidden perhaps too strong a word, Beszel’s sister city, Ul Qoma, is an entirely separate political entity with its own laws and regulations.  And despite that they often share the same streets, buildings, and parkland, the two cities remain separated by invisible walls called “crosshatching” that people are taught from birth not to cross.  The citizens of both sides are likewise taught to “unsee” the other, even if they are walking within arm’s length.  Upon sight of foreign clothes, places, people, etc., they must look away lest a procedure called “breach” is invoked.  A mysterious political entity that enforces laws and monitors the crosshatch areas, Breach looms over everything Borlu does in tracking the young woman’s killer to the other side.  The danger Borlu faces in invoking breach is perfectly balanced with the threats he faces investigating the political figures, building to a perfect climax.  

Mieville has stated that The City & the City is an examination of the “divided city.”  Places like present day Jerusalem, Istanbul, Nicosia (Cyprus), and Kirkuk (Iraq), as well as the historical cities of Berlin, Belfast, Mostar (Bosnia), or any Jewish ghetto all served as real world examples of cities separated along cultural or racial lines.  Mieville handling the subject of cultural perception and the resulting social issues with maturity, Detective Borlu becomes a lens through which the reader sees more than just an everyday police officer as the novel progresses.  That he tells a gripping story in the process, isn’t that the definition of a great novel?

(For those who have read the novel and are interested in additional commentary, please see the article "Seeing the Unseen: The Cultural Significance of China Mieville's The City & the City" from this blog.)

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