Inspector Tyador Borlú has a murder investigation on his hands; that of an unidentified young woman in the city state of Besź, somewhere on the edge of Europe. Like the best dogged detectives in pulp investigative novels, he will not rest until he finds both her murderer and the motive for this crime, but the story of his investigation also becomes the story of the cities of Besź and Ul Quoma; two separate cities, with different cultures, customs, and languages which somehow seem to occupy the same physical space as each other.
This split in the cities is revealed slowly to the reader; through the actions of those who have lived with it their entire lives, but don’t refer to it directly for fear of invoking Breach, the shadowy, possibly supernatural organization who keep the cities separate. Through the investigation the reader learns of the traditions and customs, dress styles and ways of movement, that help the locals identify which city they are in, and what they should ignore or “unsee” from their “grosstopological” neighbors. This second mystery builds in the readers mind, with more details on the other city, the mysterious digs around the city and the myths of a third city, the mythical Orciny, hiding in the places claimed by neither Besź or Ul Quoma, all of which to add to that initial mystery of the murder.
This second mystery is the key to the book, is Inspector Borlu (and the citizens of the cities), trapped in some bureaucratic nightmare like Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Orwell’s 1984? Subject to some kind of consensual mass hallucination that separates them from their neighbors, or is there a more fantastical reason for the splinter in the cities?
I must admit having read Miéville’s alt fantasy New Crobuzon novels, (Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, The Scar) with their weird magics, cactus men, and bug headed humans I was leaning more towards a more fantastical reason for the split. This seemed to be supported by the seeming omnipotence of Breach, the strange artifacts that litter dig sites that pre-date the twin cities, and the strange pattern of which areas are in one city or the other, however upon reflection Miéville doesn‘t seem to give a solid indication either way, leaving it up to the reader.
The city is split, there is a murder (and later murders) to be resolved that spans both cities, and perhaps beyond; and Borlú, Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt of the Ul Quoman militysa, Constable Lizybet Corwi of the Besź Extreme Crime Squad and others need to negotiate the red tape of these conjoined cities, the mess of weird nationalist and unificationist groups who seek to split the cities further or unite them, in order to find out why this girl was killed.
The joy in reading the book is that the author allows the reader to play detective as well, not in resolving the murder, as there will always be clues not yet discovered, that the reader couldn’t possibly know about, but in trying to figure out the situation of the cities and deciphering the vocabulary Miéville comes up with to describe the odd concepts.
At 372 pages in softback the city and the city is a relatively quick read, although you will spend more time trying to figure out just what is going on with the geography of the book. As mentioned above, not every mystery is revolved however the ending is satisfying nonetheless. Miéville traces the small cast of characters deftly, but the main character in the book is that schism between the two cities, and while the initial cause is never revealed, it is an intriguing idea that propels the book forward and keeps you thinking about it and how you relate to your own city, what do you glance upon every day and then immediately “unsee“?
The City and the City and the Stage
For any readers in Chicago, the Lifeline theatre is presenting a stage version of the book until April 7, 2013, with China Miéville himself appearing at the theatre on Saturday, March 16th for a book signing event and discussion with the audience and cast. For more information check out the lifeline theatre’s website.