For the festive season reading list, I’d like to get back to books that can stand up to frequent re-readings. They’re old, but good, and their themes are particularly relevant these days. Let’s start with a novel with the theme of politics and separation: The City & The City, by China Miéville. You are not going to have an easy read from this author. You want soft soupy porridge for the brain, with lots of sugar? Read someone else. You want roughage with lots of vitamins and resilience-building argumentation? Read Miéville.
The City & The City
Before I started on The City & The City I took the time to reread, for about the 10th time, Miéville’s magnum opus, Perdido Street Station, the magnificent tour de force of imagination, the grand experience in which the reader’s reality gets sublimated into the complete, fantastically detailed, spell-binding world of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants. All 710 wonderful, engrossing pages of it.
Again, the descriptions so gripped me that I felt I could see, in my mind, Yagharek, the Garuda, who had had his wings cut from his back, Lin, the Khepri artist, who sculpts with her own spit; Isaac, the lumbering scientist with wildly teetering emotions, the Weaver, who snips and weaves dreams and reality for the sake of beauty; the slake-moths, with their hypnotic wings; and all the weird and wonderful imaginings of China Miéville’s prodigious and astonishingly creative mind.
Choice-theft – the ultimate crime
I had not been the only one to become completely immersed in this world – search for the characters online and you will find colonies of people drawing, illustrating and interpreting this novel. Could it get any more awesome, I thought? (Awesome, as in scary and impressive in the same breath. Not cool, or nice.) Yes, it could. Perdido Street Station is about what happens when you take someone else’s choice away from them – a punishment most horrible but most appropriate:
“To take the choice of another…to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to…for all individuals to have…our choices.” (p.692.)
You might think, oh this is too abstract for my taste. But then this conversation, as you can see, comes in after almost 700 pages of mind-bending new concepts and inventions.
In Perdido Street Station, amongst the Garudas it is a crime to take the ability of others to choose away from them. But any limitation of choice, or use of force, produces hellish results, anything from exile to ghettos, to imprisonment, to altering the bodies of culprits into grim mirror-images of the crimes which they themselves had committed. Would there be a similar theme in The City & The City?
Miéville to me is far more than an author of Weird Fiction. Or even Science Fiction. Because 1) the world is already weird. And 2) what he writes about wobbles on the edge of being the reality as opposed to some far-fetched imagining. And he always sneaks in a message for today’s world. Take his comment in this blog post, about Belgium wanting to ban Tintin in the Congo for being racist:
“(Indeed, an astoundingly small proportion of arguments ‘for free speech’ & ‘against censorship’ or ‘banning’ are, in fact, about free speech, censorship or banning. It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say [my italicization]. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very fucking complicated. Cry Free Speech in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about & criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy? This assertive & idiotic failure to understand that juridical permissibility backed up by the state is not the horizon of politics or morality is absurdly resilient.)”
So, take it that you are not going to have an easy read from this author. You want soft soupy porridge for the brain, with lots of sugar, read someone else. You want roughage with lots of vitamins and resilience-building argumentation, read Miéville. Which brings me to The City & The City.
The separated cities
On the surface of it, this novel is about two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, existing right beside each other, divided by a line, actual and imaginary. A murder takes place in Besźel, and a detective, Tyador Borlú, is tasked with “crossing over” and solving the mystery. The novel does have the traditional detective novel trademarks – clues, forensics, witnesses, statements, red herrings, etc. etc. But it is about the murder as well as about a man seeing what the other side is like, and trying to figure out who holds the power and who separated the cities – because sometimes the division is a mere cobblestone or two. Borlú gets caught up in the plots of divisionists and unificationists, and those who try to understand what is going on. Those who question the accepted norms have an even worse time than the antagonists.
Throughout, you are left wondering: – Is this a metaphor for some place, some time? The parallels come easily to mind: – East and West Berlin, Apartheid South Africa; racial segregation in the US; Jewish ghettos in Warsaw in WWII; the wall along the West Bank, the wall between the US and Mexico, the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain…
There are few peoples or countries in the world that have not segregated one or more groups, either by law, or with some kind of physical separation. The idea is to keep people in and keep people out. Historically, the results of taking this choice of where to be, or who to be, away from people, have never been good.
Creation of secondary worlds
In the collection of Terry Pratchett’s short stories, A Blink of the Screen, author AS Byatt, in an excellent introduction, finally explained to me why some authors, like Pratchett, can create such flawlessly realistic and compelling settings.
“JRR Tolkien used the term ‘secondary worlds’ to describe fictive, invented worlds with their own creatures, geography, history, people. Human beings have always needed the existence of the other, the unreal – imaginary people and things that are other than ourselves – from fairy tales to myths to urban legends. A maker of secondary worlds needs great resources of inventiveness – both on the large scale and in the fine detail…As Tolkien says, secondary worlds must be coherent. There is a risk of the creator being romantic, or being seen to have designs – didactic or sentimental – on the reader. …I was once asked by a television interviewer, ‘Isn’t all this [secondary worlds] simply really about us?’ And I indignantly replied, ‘No’, because I really needed my secondary world to be other, separate and coherent. But of course he [Pratchett] is writing about us….But he writes neither satire nor allegory. What gets into his world is in his world, with its own energy and logic.” (pp. 12- 14)
Mieville’s secondary worlds are completely coherent, from the uncanny/”Wonderland”-type London in Un Lun Dun (2007), to Perdido Street in New Crobuzon to Besźel and Ul Qoma. It is not possible to create a direct line of comparison with a historical or current scenario. Miéville simply does not make it that easy, and leaves readers to come to their own conclusions as to meaning, since a secondary world exists for its own sake, and not primarily as a metaphor for something in reality.
So while The City & The City is a perfect secondary world, it is not a straightforward metaphor and causes a great deal of guesswork, such as the following:
“Topolganger” – ah – that sounds like the German “doppelgänger” – must be Berlin. ‘Yohan”? Sounds like Johan – is that Afrikaans? Is this Johannesburg? “Budapest-Strász”? Oh well, we are clearly talking Buda and Pécs/Pest and the Buda River or the Iron Curtain…The names sound vaguely Eastern European. Is it Turkey? Perhaps it’s more Germany. The references to flights and travel in and out of the country mention the US. Where is it? Is it a state of mind?
The theme of the novel
I got, with this reading, a sense of a claustrophobic lack of freedom. The cities, with a shared history and a shared original language, are divided with walls, railway lines, even chalk lines, and the citizens are taught to not see the people from the other side. To do so would be to “Breach” the dividing line, breach being both a verb and a noun – which sends people straight to jail. They must literally not see, even through others are in plain sight.
“Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary between Besźel and Ul Qoma had to observe it most carefully. If I or one of my friends were to have a moment’s failure of unseeing (and who did not do that? Who failed to fail to see, sometimes?) so long as it was not flaunted or indulged in, we should not be in danger.” (p.52)
The clue to the mystery is a research work, called “Between the city and the city” which poses the theory that one city still exists between Besźel and Ul Qoma; Orciny, where the inhabitants exist in plain sight, but unseen – literally. Orciny is the city as it was prior to separation, or is it the power behind the separation? (By the way, “Qoma” is Zulu for “choose”, “select” or “prefer”. Interesting name for a place in which people don’t have a choice of which side they want to be on.)
Unseeing and unhearing
It is interesting to think about all the stuff all around us every day, what we see, yet do not see. Like when someone witnesses a crime, they saw something and subsequently their memories of what they saw changed to something else. And like someone living in a segregated society, they see, but at the same time, they don’t see, the others. It it possible to teach yourself to see when you have been born and bred to unsee? Miéville responds in an interview with Random House Reader’s Circle, about the novel:
“You cannot train yourself to successfully and sustainedly unsee and unhear – you do them all the time, but they also fail, repeatedly, and you cheat, repeatedly, in all sorts of small ways. The book mentions that several times. It is absolutely about absolute fidelity to these particular urban protocols, exaggerations or extrapolations of the ones that I think are all around us all the time in the real world; but it’s also about cheating them, and failing them, and playing a little fast and loose, which I think is an inextricable part of such norms.” (p. 325)
So for me, the underlying idea of the novel is: Beware of what happens when there are laws and norms that force people into unseeing and unhearing. It’s that simple – and that complicated.