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 Besźel 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 whodunit 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.


Repost of review first published May 19th 2012, republished as the BBC2 drama serial is being broadcast

* Le Guin’s Orsinia is a not so closet reference to her own name, Ursula, which is ultimately derived (like other names such as Orson) from Latin ursa, meaning a bear

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21 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?

  3. Timely reblog Chris. Did you watch the opening episode? I love David Morrisey and felt he was well cast as Borlu. But having to explain the setting to my other half, who has not read the book, made me think it’s a surprising choice for adaptation. Better as a series, though – can you imagine how hard it would be to make a film of this?
    I still haven’t read any other Mieville books

    1. I just missed the first episode, but shall be watching it on i-Player before the second one is broadcast. I too rate Morrisey, a rugged but sensitive actor who I imagine suits the part though not as I pictured him from the book. A mini-series is exactly how the book should be portrayed — but I’m fearful lest they think further series could be eked out of this concept.

      Mieville’s YA fantasy ‘Railsea’ might be a good next foray, Lynn, less heavy than his other adult novels I’d imagine! 🙂

      1. I think you’re right about Morrisey. World weary, rugged and tormented – he does all of this very well! Maybe looks-wise not what you’d imagine, but I think the characterisation is pretty good. Will keep an eye out for the Mieville YA – didn’t know he’d written any

  4. I was completely gripped by TC&TC and have just got hold of the book. I find the whole metaphor of deliberately and consciously unseeing half your environment quite fascinating and extremely contemporary as political life seems to resemble a hall of mirrors these days with people feeling free to construct their chosen reality. Plus, I have always had a weakness for liminal places and multiple universes. Planning to blog further on it once I’ve read the book and the series has finished broadcasting to avoid spoiling others. I understand that there are some very significant changes between the two.

    There is a lot of interesting information on the BBC programme website, including the fact that Maria Schrader, who plays DI Dhatt in Ul Qoma, grew up in a divided Berlin – and that the designer’s inspiration for the two contrasting colour palettes that differentiate the cities was arial views of East and West Berlin, which have different street lighting to this day.

    Talking of invented countries, I can recommend Margaret Elphinstone’s Hy Brasil, set on a fictional island isolated in the Mid-Atlantic. It deserves to be better

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look out for that!

      Hesitant to look at the programme website unless it doesn’t give away spoilers for how the programme differs from the book. But it sounds fascinating. I may risk it… 😁

      I too am a fan of liminal places, having lived not only, as now, in areas where the division between Welsh- and English-speaking has been fluid but also Hong Kong in the 1950s when it was neither truly Chinese nor British but a sort of halfway house. I think that’s why writers on the island colony, such as Jan Morris, were attracted to it. Anyway, look forward to reading your blog posts on the whole topic!

    1. I always feel film versions have to succeed on their own terms: slavish imitations, poor casting or weak acting make one wonder ‘why did they bother?’ while wilful departures from plot or characterisation can be sources of annoyance more than admiration. This TV version looks promising to me though…

  5. The on-screen realisation of the twin cities is done very cleverly using a distinctive and very different colour palette for each one. Another level of weirdness for me at least was that the UQ scenes were filmed in my home town of Manchester, so I was disorientated to see the familiar made strange.

    It’s not all that unusual for a river to divide a conurbation into two distinct entities – happens in my home town with Manchester and Salford. Salford very much the Beszel of the two, apart from the gleaming futuristic urban landscape of the Quays, a fine if rather overwhelming example of urban regeneration.

    Concerning spoilers, the main point of divergence between the TV and original versions of TC2 is that Borlu is given more back story, involving a significant relationship not in the book. It doesn’t so much change the outcome as echo it. I think you’re safe browsing the website. Also the UQ Inspector becomes female, which helps mitigate the rather phallocentric character of the original I think.

    1. I love the way cinematographers attempt to differentiate between time periods, worlds or states of being, the classic being the switch to colour in The Wizard of Oz. The techniques you describe for TC&TC sound to be effective and pleasing, and I like the blurred peripheral vision effect I see in the trailer.

      I tell you what’s more disorientating than seeing one’s home town on film, and that’s when characters round a corner and what you see is not what’s there in real life. I saw that, for example, with exterior scenes in the televised version of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, filmed in the Montpelier district of Bristol where I used to live.

      The ‘spoilers’ aren’t really worth the name, so I’m happy to engage with the extras that come with the mini-series!

  6. Good review! I especially enjoyed your investigative efforts at pointing out various inspirations for Mieville’s work :).

    The City & the City is the most troublesome Mieville for me to date 😉 I’m glad you pointed out the dark labyrinthine poetry of the book and the underwhelming ending – in general Mieville seems to have a problem with right endings, and by “right” I mean emotionally and intellectually satisfying. I have this image of Mieville being so engrossed with world-building and the story itself that by the moment he actually gets to the end he’s so spent he just goes “whatever” ;). But maybe that’s his artistic vision – to show the ultimate futility of worlds real and imagined ;). Anyway, that was my woe with all his books I’ve read: The Scar, Perdido Street Station and Kraken – and TC&TC, obviously ;).

    When I read TC&TC I was thinking of Istanbul and divided Berlin, but also of Balkan cities with their clear symbolism of ethnic and religious divisions. There are places and bits of shared earlier memory you shouldn’t even mention, and the outsiders can be completely lost within a maze that exists solely in the minds of other people.

    1. Thanks, Ola, especially for your appreciation of my ‘investigative efforts’ — though I fear I will have barely scraped the surface where parallels with the scenario here are concerned. I could’ve referenced Jerusalem, Cyprus and Korea, for example (and of course the instances you mention) — all schizophrenic entities with such disparities despite their many commonalities.

      Endings: yes he does tend to fizzle out, certainly in the three I’ve read so far. I ought to give him another go. There was a troubling novella, was there not, from a year or two ago. I must say, I’m not in the mood for being depressed, there’s enough, real life depressing developments in the news every day.

      By the way, Mefinx published what I think is a good overview today at https://mefinx.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/weirdly-normal-the-city-and-the-city/

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