Title: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
I’ve been tempted to read China Miéville many times before, but when I learnt about The City & the City and had the opportunity to borrow it from a friend, i knew that I had no choice but to read it instantly. Why? Because the idea upon which the novel is based is one of the best ideas I’ve ever encountered. I knew I would like this novel even before I opened it, even though I could only hope that the author was competent enough to use such a cool idea and create a good novel as well. He was and he did, far beyond my expectations.
So, what is this idea I keep going on about? The novel is set in a world which seems to be the same as the one we inhabit, but with a significant addition of a city and a city, called Beszel and Ul Qoma respectively. These cities, although geographically coexisting, are two different countries, two different city-states. Citizens in Beszel aren’t allowed to notice what’s going on in Ul Qoma, even though they might share certain streets; the inhabitants of Ul Quoma must carefully “unhear” anything that’s being said on the other side of the border, even though it might be within arm’s reach. The divide is upheld by rigorous social taboos, rules and regulations, internalised by the citizens since they were kids, enabling them to ignore what’s might be happening so close, but is still in another country. There is also the omnipotent Breach, which intervenes whenever illegal interaction occurs between the two cities. Only in the centre of the city can people pass legally over an international border, through customs and reach the other city.
The story starts with body being found in Beszel, and detective Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad starts an investigation. But the murdered woman, a foreign student studying in Ul Qoma, was last seen in that city, which makes Borlú think that this is a case for Breach. However, his request to hand it over to the mysterious and powerful organisation is denied: No breach has occurred, the body was legally transported from Ul Quoma to Beszel, it’s a case for the police, a case for Borlú and his harsh sidekick Corwi. But why would somebody go to such extremes to get rid of a student? Why steal a van and smuggle the body between the cities? The answer is out there for Borlú to find, but in which city?
What is so astonishing about this novel is perhaps not the idea itself, but the fact that China Miéville manages to portray life in the two cities as something quite ordinary and normal. The cities are bizarre, but after only a few chapters, they feel natural and the reader is already in the mindset of the main character. I already said I thought the idea is brilliant, but the author exploits it to its absolute potential and makes far more of it than I thought possible.
In addition to this, the story itself is thrilling, entertaining and fascinating, all at once. Reading the book, I had a very hard time putting it down; I wanted to see what happened in the next chapter and what new aspects of the two cities might emerge. The story is told with a language which probably isn’t beautiful, but yet masterfully used to achieve a certain effect: credibility. In addition, this books is exactly as long as it needs to be, there is no excess and nothing lacks.
To put it very briefly, this novel is perfect. Five snails without even the slightest glimmer of doubt. The City & the City is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Read it now!