Fractured Cities: China Miéville's The City and the City

When in Besźel. Only see Besźel.

I have to get on a shuttle bus on my way to and from work, and the travel is about an hour, but I like it because I have time to read. I have finished Miéville's The ScarThe City and the City, and Kraken on the bus. In The City and the City, the author moves away from his fantasy/weird fiction roots and tries his hand on the murder mystery genre. The setting is not any fantasy world but in our modern days, though the countries are purely fictional though very believable.

The City and the City is told from the perspective of Police Inspector Traydor Borlu who works for the city-state of Besźel, a fictional place located somewhere in Eastern Europe. A woman's body was found dead, dumped in his city. As they start to investigate, the setting of the story gets more complicated.

Besźel shares its space with a very different city, Ul Qoma. The two are different countries yet occupy the same space. There are places specific to each country, and places ('crosshatches') where they are both. The citizens of both countries have different languages, clothing styles, gestures, and body language. Ul Qoma is more modern than Besźel. Yet, the citizens of each country must actively ignore the people on the other side, even when they walk on the same road. Any illegal breaching is subject to severe punishment by the unknown, powerful, all-seeing entity known as Breach. Breach enforces the separation of the two places and protects the borders. The people of both countries have learned the habit of "unseeing", of removing the people and happenings on the other side from their senses at all. Unseeing is almost as involuntary as blinking or breathing, as everyone fears Breach.

Upon further investigation, the victim is found out to be Mahalia Geary, an American PhD student studying in Ul Qoma, and the murder seems to have happened in Ul Qoma and the body dumped in Beszel. Borlu tries to hand over the case to Breach, but evidence showed (CCTV footage) that the passage of the body from the other city was done in a way that didn't violate Breach. Borlu takes the matter into his own hands again and goes to Ul Qoma himself to look for the answers. Breach is in both places but seems to be independent of these kinds of investigations.

That's how crazy Breach is: it cares more about the sacredness of the border and the separation of the cities than murder. Breach is like Big Brother, who has eyes everywhere in both cities, is a mysterious force, its people ready to appear anywhere where breach-crime happens. The citizens of both countries have an ingrained fear of Breach, and most who have committed Breach are never seen again.

Borlu's investigation of the crime and the victim's life leads him to more mysteries. People related to Mahalia are being threatened by something unknown. The victim was part of an archeological dig which uncovered artifacts which may be from the period before the two places separated (an idea that doesn't make certain people happy at all). It turns out that Geary was a fanatic of a strange idea that there is a third city among the two cities called Orciny. Her murder seems to be connected to this idea. As his investigation goes deeper, Borlu may even come face to face with the thing that the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma fear most: Breach.

As always, Miéville's strength is creating a fully believable world. Whether it is a magical London or the totally crazy fantasy world, reading it feels like visiting the place. It's as if you can imagine what it's like to be a typical citizen of the place. The fictional setting of both cities is somewhere in Eastern Europe and even if they are invented places, it's believable that it can be part of our world. Countries that fight over their land and share the same spaces isn't an entirely new idea (Israel/Palestine, even our own issue in Mindanao), but the author exaggerates it further and creates a compelling setting.

Though as a murder mystery, it felt somehow flat for me. I've read my share of murder mysteries, and this book also has that page-turning element, with enough clues and fake clues to keep you guessing. But when the mystery was solved it was just lame and it doesn't feel like that "Aha!" moment like in an intricately-plotted Agatha Christie mystery. What I liked, though, is how it showed the world of academe in Borlu's investigations into Geary.

However, the book is worth reading for how striking and compelling the setting is. The novel has won many well-deserved awards for the fantasy genre: the Hugo, BSFA, Locus, Arthur C. Clarke, and World Fantasy Award. It's probably the most decorated of all his books, most of which are also recognized and won awards. It was also adapted in a 4-episode television series in BBC last March 2018 (they changed the story a bit), which I also plan to watch. This promotional video on Youtube, "Besźel Tourist Orientation" gives you a good feel of the story and how the two cities work.

I'm reading this author's books one after another and I'm now reading my fifth Miéville novel, King Rat, which is his first book. Kraken was fun, though the last parts were difficult to get through. I still think The Scar is his best book and many people seem to share this opinion. I find it more difficult to write about books I like a lot, but maybe I will also review it here soon.

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