Saturday, March 5, 2016

The City & The City

Title:  The City & The City
Author:  China Mi√©ville
Publication Information:  Del Ray. 2009. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0345497511 / 978-0345497512

Book Source:  I read this book for a book discussion at my local library.

Opening Sentence:  "I could not see the street or much of the estate."

Favorite Quote:  "We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live. On that issue I am a liberal. I live in the interstice yes, but I live in both the city and the city."

I did a double take when I realized that the name of the book is not The City but rather The City & The City. How unusual. Having read it, the title is perfect. For the setting - the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma - is the main feature of this book. The setting is what I find the most captivating, much more so than the story itself. The setting is what I will remember from this book, much more so than any character or any aspect of the plot.

For, Beszel and Ul Qoma are like no other cities ever seen. The descriptions make them sound as if on the other periphery of Europe. Not unusual. One is old and decrepit; the other seems much more vibrant. Again, not unusual. What is unusual is the fact that the two cities appear to occupy the same physical space. However, the two are distinct, unique, and very separate - in language, in culture, and in politics. Between them lies a border - a real, imagined, or perceived boundary that both sides work very diligently to maintain.

How is this possible? The book describes a system of crosshatches. Picture a grid of a geographic area. Specific squares lie completely and totally within one city. However, where the squares of the two cities touch, a "crosshatch" develops. Citizens of each city stay within their designated squares but may be together in a crosshatch. However, even within a crosshatch, both sides profess not to see the other. "It works because you don't blink. That's why unseeing and unsensing is so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does." If someone - anyone - crosses from one city to the other, a breach occurs. And, it is firmly dealt with.

This book may have a deeper philosophical point to make about the real world. The naming of the characters and places and the differences in languages overall hint at similar, real life situations. The politics of nationalists and unificationists can also be interpreted to apply to the real world. However, as a reader, I choose not to see any deeper association, taking the descriptions as an imaginative creation of a world apart. This allows me to sink into the descriptions and the fantasy of the story.

The layers of the city, the different languages between the two, and unusual names makes this a multi-layered story that is sometimes challenging to follow. Remembering which character originates in which city and which city the action is taking place in at any given time means that this book takes some getting used to. The fantasy world takes some time to visualize; that becomes even more challenging when the layers of the city are itself part of the mystery of this book.

Really, the setting of this book is the story. The plot line involves the murder of a young woman. The body is found in Beszel, but the investigation leads much much further. From the appearance of the young woman, the initial thought is a prostitution transaction gone wrong; the investigation goes much deeper into politics, research, power, and an understanding of what truly lies between the two cities. On the face of it, the book is a crime novel with its police investigations and procedures. Underneath is a weird, imaginative, ruthless, and memorable fantasy world.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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