I’ve just finished reading a rather interesting novel. I have a reading list as long as my arm (though admittedly, I don’t have very long arms and I’m not including my collarbone or hand in that estimate), so it’s quite nice to actually read something simply for enjoyment. I miss doing that.
The book in question was The City and the City by China Mieville. This is a slightly bizarro novel that’s rather hard to categorise. Inevitably, it’s shelved under ‘Fantasy,’ because China Mieville is a fantasy author and therefore is not allowed to write in any other genre. But it’s not really fantastical. It’s set in a fictional place, true, but so was Hard Times. Beyond that, though, there’s no magic and no monsters – like the Gormenghast trilogy, it seems to be counted as fantasy whether it deserves it or not. Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie includes magic and demons and ghosts but is not fantasy. Go figure.
The book is set in two fictional city-states – the vaguely East European Beszel (which should be written with accents) and the vaguely Middle Eastern Ul Qoma. These cities are very different, culturally and economically. Beszel is in a slump, while Ul Qoma is an up-and-coming power. Beszel enjoys a friendly relationship with the USA, while Ul Qoma is blockaded. Ul Qomans and Besz wear different clothes, use different alphabets, eat different food, speak different languages, even the way they walk and gesture differs between the two cities. And to be in the wrong city without a permit will bring down the wrath of Breach, a sinister and mysterious police force – if you’ve breached, there is no measure that is not in their power to use against you.
But here’s where things get weird – Ul Qoma and Beszel occupy the same space. Certain areas belong to one city, and others to the other. Weirder still, there are areas of “crosshatching,” belonging to both cities. The boundaries between the two nations are purely psychological, with citizens of one being trained from birth to ignore or “unsee” the people, buildings and traffic of the other, with Breach maintaining the mental division by force.
The story revolves around a person found dead in Beszel, but apparently killed in Ul Qoma. And apparently no breach has taken place. Inspector Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates, and discovers that something very, very strange is going on. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that, like so much that Mieville writes, this one will mess with your head.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m talking about this book when it has almost nothing to do with London. It’s not set in London, it’s not even set in a place inspired by London (unlike most of Mieville’s other fantasy). The reason I think it’s appropriate is that, while it’s not a story applicable specifically to London, it’s one that’s applicable to the urban condition as a whole.
The concept of two different nations whose boundaries exist purely in your mind is, on the face of it, freaky-deaky. But think about the concept of “unseeing.” Think about it next time you walk through the city. Think about all the things around you that you simply ignore because they don’t concern you. On an obvious level, derelict buildings. Shops you don’t use. Streets you walk past but not along. How about the stuff you ignore on a cultural level? I don’t use the mosque. I pay no attention to the R&B night posters. I walk straight past the Polish delicatessens. The council estates might as well not exist. There’s no reason I should bear these things especially in mind, but equally, there’s no reason why I should be ignoring them. How can I consider myself citywise when there’s so much of the city, even within areas I know, about which I’m ignorant?
The concept of a hidden world that we ignore or don’t see is nothing new in fiction. Works like Mieville’s own King Rat, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and hell, even Harry Potter use hidden corners of London as secret places. Yet The City and the City is, as far as I’m aware (tell me if I’m wrong) the first to actually suggest that there’s nothing magical going on there. And in that regard, it suggests that the responsibility to see or unsee is entirely our own. What aren’t we seeing? What are we being told to ignore?
In future, if anyone asks me what psychogeography is, I think I’ll just hand them a copy of this book and tell them to ask me again in a week.