Stalking the Interstice

The City and the City
China Mieville
Ballentine Books, 2009

Tyador Borlu is a police inspector in Beszel, an Eastern European city-nation. Borlu is good at his job and two things that make him good at it are a dogged persistence and a willingness to bend—or break—certain rules. When he gets called to scene where the body of a woman has been dumped, he cannot know, at first, the impact this single case will have on his life.

The anonymous woman is no unlucky prostitute or party girl who fell victim to a predator. She is something more mysterious and pivotal. Borlu and his assistant Lizbyet Corwi soon draw the conclusion that their Fulana (what we would call a “Jane Doe”) was murdered in a completely different city, murdered and dumped in Beszel. This creates a bureaucratic and diplomatic incident of dramatic proportions, for their Fulana lived, and died, in Ul Qoma.

Ul Qoma, a city with a different language, culture and customs, occupies exactly the same space and time as Beszel, but a different dimension. Mostly the two cities are discrete, but in places they cross-hatch, or bleed through. Most cross-hatching is thoroughly mapped, and citizens of each municipality are trained from childhood to “unsee” the incursions of their neighbor. To make contact across dimensions—to breach—without authorization will bring down the instant action from the mysterious all-powerful entity also known as Breach.

Borlu, our first person narrator, never tells us all this straight out. He lets us discover it for ourselves as we ride along with him on his investigation. He speaks in the slightly world-weary tone of a good cop who, while disappointed by things he has seen in his work, is still not jaded. His stubbornness and his imagination, both of which he will need to solve the mystery of the murdered woman, have also made him a chronic cryto-criminal. Borlu frequently breaches, refusing to “unsee,” once even deliberately making eye contract with a woman on an elevated train on Ul Qoma.

The plot of the book is linear. Once the experienced reader knows that Borlu commits breach, he or she will know exactly where the book is headed. This does not lessen the enjoyment or the impact of the book in the least. Mieville constructs a convincing police procedural against the backdrop of these two cities. He uses tiny details to build up the mosaic of our understanding. To call someone in Ul Qoma from Beszel, even though the two cities are in the same place and the person you are calling might be standing right next to you (or right where you’re standing) it takes an international phone call. People in Beszel are banned from wearing certain colors, colors common in Ul Qoma, so that passers-by aren’t confused and don’t inadvertently breach.

Borlu’s investigation takes him into Ul Qoma legally, where he partners with a detective named Dhatt. Dhatt is a good investigator, if a very different kind of cop than Borlu; accepting the “cop discount” from local diners and having a fondness for what Borlu diplomatically calls “assertive interrogation techniques.” The case takes them to an archeological dig where the murdered woman, an American graduate student, worked. The artifacts, believed to be from a time deep in history or even pre-history when the cities were one, are intriguing and incomprehensible. Clues lead Borlu to nationalist terrorist groups in each city and the more elusive unificationists, who want to do away with Breach and unify the two cities. Along the way, more people are killed, but Borlu does not stop, confronting Breach itself to solve the mystery.

In some ways Mieville has returned to his literary roots, the sundered London of King Rat. His artistic triumph here is not the vision of two cities interlaced across dimensions, clever and thought-provoking as it is. It’s his exploration of how quickly humans adapt, how willingly we learn to “unsee” and “unknow.” Clearly this can be read as a metaphor for the things we choose not to see in our own cities or our own lives, but Mieville also celebrates the elasticity of the human mind. In the Ul Qoma section of the book, Borlu sits with Dhatt at a club. He looks across the street and sees, stuck on a wall, a poster of the murdered woman. He quickly tries to unsee it, in case it is one he posted in Beszel before he knew the woman’s identity. However, there is a chance, implied at least, that the poster he is not-seeing is in Ul Qoma, posted by the dead woman’s colleagues, and therefore no breach to observe. What do you unsee? What do you unknow? How do you know?

Borlu, inhabitant of the nested cities, is someone who rebels. He chooses to see. He always chooses to see. This lets him solve the mystery, and seals his fate.

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