London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Words on the novel’s pages to conjure up the stuff of nightmare, words in the mouths of characters to change reality, words written on pieces of paper which have awareness. Billy (“don’t be a hero”) Harrow is the bespectacled protagonist who gets thrown into a, literally, harrowing series of crises for which he didn’t volunteer, mixed up with underground cults, unorthodox police, a transmigrating fetish spirit and, most terrifying of all, Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby are, were, the most convincingly menacing personages in the novel, Goss for his gratuitous violence and pally malevolence, Subby for his powerful vacuousness (we realise that Subby probably stands not for subnormality, his outward appearance, but for substitute, his inward role). Of the other characters, Kath Collingswood and Dane Parnell stand out, one a witchy chain-smoking constable, the other a true Londoner who gains Billy’s at first grudging and then outright respect. Everyman Billy is a little bit cardboard cut-out for me: he spends the first half of the book as the confused innocent abroad and the second half as urban guerilla, but I never have a sense of him as a scientist, the role we first see him in.

In a way, London is the hero: it is there, ever-present, the action never moves beyond the M25, the story doesn’t just inhabit the streets, it is the streets. But, other than the Museum, it’s not the tourist’s London, and apart from the occasional mention of districts or the Thames Barrier this is an anonymous, almost generic, seedy metropolis of faceless buildings and people, all functioning as a backdrop to the action leading inexorably to apocalypse. The supporting characters and even some of the main cast are expendable, ciphers in the narrative’s drive to resolution.

Is this a great novel? No, and one can argue that it was never meant to be. But it’s witty and inventive, dark and humorous at the same time, full of striking concepts and punny language (typically, magic, the mainspring of the action, is never mentioned; instead maguses and adepts ‘knack’ and magicked things are ‘knacked’); and only the characters involved take the situations they find themselves in seriously as a matter of life-and-death. It’s my first Miéville novel, and I suspect it won’t be my last.*

As a postscript, I see that Kraken appears to be slang for crack cocaine, possibly because in Dutch some of the meanings of English crack can be translated as the related verb kraken. How much this is relevant to Miéville’s novel I have no idea, but perhaps its nightmarish quality, with fantasy morphing into an illusory reality, can be interpreted by reference to this etymology.

* Review first published 28th September 2012
An occasional reblog to mark five years since Calmgrove first appeared

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8 thoughts on “London is the hero

  1. I’ve only read The City and the City of his, highly recommended by a friend who adores China Mieville’s books. While I thought it was very good, there was a coldness, a distance between us and the characters that has put me off buying any more of his books. Ultimately, I didn’t care enough about the fate of the MC. The plot for this sounds intriguing, with echoes of Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Great review, as always Chris

    1. I agree with you about The City and the City, especially the coldness of the characters, though I think that coldness was part of the point — Mieville’s focus was more on ‘urban weirdness’ than anything. (My review’s at http://wp.me/s2oNj1-beszel). This is also rather urban-weird, and very likely partly influenced by Neverwhere.

      1. Which do you think is the better novel, Chris – this or The City and the City? I felt myself really enjoying Mieville’s ideas but wanting to engage with characters more. It sometimes felt like an intellectual exercise more than anythin else

        1. Myself, I’d read C&C again, not Kraken. You’d enjoy Railsea more, I think — granted it’s YA but one does root for the characters and there’s some wit thrown in for good measure. Intellectual exercise? Yes, that sounds fair criticism.

  2. I loved The City & The City, King Rat is interesting too because it’s earlier (?maybe his first book) and you can see him trying out a lot of the ideas that come back in later novels. His book of short stories Three Moments Of An Explosion has some really good work in it too.

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