Somewhere at the edge of Europe

Cretan-labyrinth

China Miéville The City and the City
Pan 2010 (2009)

Can cities really
co-exist in the same place?
Beware the frontier!

China Miéville’s preferred genre is ‘weird fiction’, and a sub-genre within that is urban fantasy. Kraken, for example, is set is a barely recognisable London, and the earlier The City and the City is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, “somewhere at the edge of Europe”. Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t quite like Buda and Pest, or Istanbul spread between Europe and Asia Minor, though they do share that sense of liminality, of neither-nor. And the dividing line between the two isn’t as physically evident as, say, the Danube or the Bosphorus: individuals who stray across (let alone stare across) that metaphysical divide, who literally “breach” (particularly in so-called “cross-hatched” areas), are likely to fall foul of a shadowy force called Breach.

Into this knife-edge world strides the Besz police inspector Borlú, investigating the murder of an unknown young woman. Where the investigation leads him is the increasingly nightmarish plot of Miéville’s novel which I found fascinating and which engaged me almost up to the final dénouement. The urgency that suffused the action, beautifully placed in a vividly-imagined and almost credible urban setting, for me just lost its impetus in the closing pages, tarnishing a magnificent concept with a slightly banale conclusion. But that really doesn’t take away from the wonder of Miéville’s creation.

Part of the joy of this modern tale of two cities is the richness of the world the author creates, one that you can almost imagine inhabiting, or at least visiting (though that with great difficulty). Much of that richness is down to his invented lexicon for people and places. We are led to presume that these two cities are somewhere in Eastern Europe (neighbouring states are Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, direct flights by BeszAir go to Budapest, Skopje and Athens). Borlú’s home town of Besźel looks related to the Hungarian word beszél, “he, she or it speaks”; the inspector’s own name is similar to a town in the western Turkish province of Manisa. There are nearly fifty Besz locations mentioned and at least thirty in Ul Qoma, all contributing to an illusion of verisimilitude, though physical maps of the two localities are virtually impossible to reconstruct; and incidental details, of culture, architecture, the mix of modernity and tradition, are liable to send the entranced reader ransacking travel guides and websites.

Some have criticised the apparent lack of characterisation of many of the protagonists and others. I’m less concerned about this: Borlú is a cop, and most likely to give “just the facts, ma’am” than indulge in fanciful descriptions in this first-person narrative. In any case, there’s enough reported speech to assess any one person, and you can gauge a lot by their actions and reactions. More problematic is the fact that there are nearly seventy named individuals (many with non-Western names), and I had to resort to taking notes, like a detective, to keep track of them. Whether it was worth it to assess who dunit is another matter, however.

Miéville acknowledges a number of authors to whom he’s indebted, and some are obvious suspects: Chandler and Kafka, for example. The debt to Jan Morris must be (rather than to her studies of Hong Kong and Venice, for instance) owed to Hav, reports of her fictional visits to a fictional peninsula in the eastern Mediterranean, riven by its backwards- and forwards-looking inclinations and dominated by a dualist Cathar heresy. Here, surely, is one inspiration for The City and the City.

Another inspiration, though unmentioned, could be Jorge Luis Borges’ tales, especially his Death and the Compass about a detective seeking patterns for murders in an unnamed South American city. Another Borges story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius begins “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” Uqbar, like Ul Qoma, is hard to place, but appears to be in but not necessarily of the Arab world; Uqbar’s first two letters, coincidentally, form the ‘.uq’ suffix of some Ul Qoman websites. Meanwhile, Borges says that Tlön, one of his cities, “is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men”, and in a way any attempt to understand the Besz and Ul Qoman environments and realities is equally labyrinthine in its complexities. Borges’ narrative also reflects on Orbis Tertius, a deliberately inaccurate Latin approximation of ‘Third World’, and this may well have influenced Miéville’s concept of Breach, guardian of the junctures between the two cities.

And I can’t resist mentioning here Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales, stories about a fictional Central European country in the 19th century; reportedly influenced by the example of Czechoslovakia, now returned to the status of two separate nations (Slovakia and the Czech Republic), Orsinia might have provided inspiration for the mythical third ‘other’ city of Orciny that crops up throughout The City and the City.

And, finally, Borges gives Sir Thomas Browne’s classic 1658 Urn Burial as a complimentary reference; this meditation on death, modes of burial and us, the readers, as questioning historians also mirrors events in The City and the City, beginning as it does with a death, a mysterious Ul Qoman archaeological dig, and whether life carries on when one is no longer in this world. A strange, wonderful but not quite perfect novel.

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10 thoughts on “Somewhere at the edge of Europe

  1. Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:

    Cymbeline was set in a barely recognisable Britain, either historical or geographical. Miéville’s The City and the City equally is set in an equally indeterminable Europe, sometime in the present.

        1. Then this for you would be a horror story, Col…
          I’ve lived in cities and in the countryside and like them both for different reasons, regardless of their drawbacks. Nowadays I don’t miss the noise and the pollution of cities but do miss the amenities and services; equally, living in the country has its disadvantages despite the relative peace and silence.

  2. Great review, Chris. I’m glad you pointed out the flat ending – I felt that too. A little disappointing for what was a good book. He has some wonderful ideas, but I did feel the characterisation lacking.

      1. He’s clearly a very talented writer – some wonderful, wondrous ideas – but I just really wanted to root for the MC more and found I had very little emotional connection with him. I find this with some dramas too, though that’s often because they focus so muc on plot rather than character. Am I the only one who needs to get to know and feel a little for the characters before we launch into an adventure with them?

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