China Mieville’s books have intrigued me for a long time. Not only does he have a cool name but he’s also won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, a list that includes The City and the City. The novel also won the Hugo Award in 2010 (actually sharing the award with Bacigulup’s The Windup Girl). Mieville is also part of the literary movement dubbed the New Weird - writers who blend horror, science fiction, fantasy and the surreal. He’s also recently had some interesting things to say about the future of the novel and I found myself agreeing with his insights, in particular his notion that novelists should be paid a wage rather than royalties.
Mieville has stated that he aims to write a novel in every genre. With The City and the City his genre of choice is the crime novel with noir elements. True to the New Weird tag the novel is not a straight crime novel, but falls somewhere between crime and science fiction. At the heart of the narrative is the brilliant idea of two separate cities existing in the same geographical space, but estranged from each other to the extent that their citizens are forbidden to interact. It’s a great idea that Mieville riffs on throughout the novel, but it ends up being both a strength and a weakness. The detail involved in making the premise of two city-states living side by side in isolation believable comes at a cost, when at the half way point A.S Byatt’s notion of narrative greed begins to creep in. Whilst the sometimes slow narrative pacing is certainly a flaw, it is thankfully a minor one.
Written in the first person, Mieville’s economical writing suits this reinvention of the crime novel. Mieville takes the tropes of the crime novel and runs with them gleefully. The novel opens with the description of a crime scene in which a dead body has been found. The no nonsense protagonist – Borlu, gets called “boss” by Corwi, his slightly naive but tough underling. The initial crime opens up many unanswered questions and a cover-up ensues. Borlu has to cross the ‘border’ into the foreign city of Ul Qoma to work with Qussim Dhatt, an equally tough and shrewd detective. Mieville takes such clichés and manages to make them new again against the backdrop of the two divided cities somewhere on the edge of Europe.
The citizens of Beszel have to ‘unsee’ the buildings and citizens of Ul Qoma and vice versa. If there is any significant illegal interaction between the two then in steps Breach – an all-powerful presence that exists in the shadows, policing the invisible borders. This unique premise resulted in me practicing ‘unseeing’ buildings and people on the other side of the road as I walked through Subiaco to work. I discovered that what might sound like a far-fetched idea is actually quite easy to do in practice. Actually I suspect that the premise is an analogy for the unseen (avoided at all costs etc) elements of big cities – the homeless and the under-classes that no one wants or cares about. Is The City and the City a novel with a political agenda? Perhaps, but if so then thankfully Mieville does not labor the point.
The mystery at the heart of The City and the City goes deep and should be enough to satisfy most readers, even those who exist on a literary diet of mystery thrillers. In Borlu Mieville has created a convincing protagonist, even though he sometimes flirts with cliché – or is it respectful parody? Either way you still care about what happens to him in the end, giving the book an emotional impact that gives its somewhat outré concepts a very human framework to hang off. I’m sure that Mieville fans will have their own opinions about how to approach his oeuvre, but The City and the City certainly is a fine place to begin if you are, like me, a New Weird novice.