Friday, 2 April 2010

The City & The City

This arrived as part of a much delayed shipment from amazon, and so I fell on it like a starving man. It was just what I needed,- - not so heavy or rich that it was hard to digest, but also not so light and bland that it lacked savour.

I have previously only read Miéville's Perdido Street Station, which I had a hard time with. I can think of material problems I had with this: large sections were in italics. It's a convoluted story with some bits more interesting than others. Most of the characters are pretty miserable most of the time, and spent quite a lot of pages mulling it all over. Often in italics. But despite all this, a lot of the reason I turned against it was the circumstances of when I read it.

It was a hot summer holiday in Rome, and we stayed in a cheap hotel that was close to the monuments, but down a back alley in a nasty part of town. It was built into a dark corner of an old office block, one window looking out to the gloomy street, the other into a bird shit stained lightwell. The breakfast room was in a stairwell, and we'd fill up on cheap euro breakfast of cheese and bread rolls before heading out to wander the city's ancient ruins. Rome is the closest place in the world to a real life fantasy city, where the spirit of forgotten magic rises from the ruins the randomly erupt from the streets around every corner.

My copy of Perdido Street Station was a cheap paperback that I read lying in bed, propped up on pillows during afternoon siestas in a stuffy hotel room, while Jane snored beside me. I remember hot afternoons with aching feet, frowning intently at the tiny, close set pages of type, feeling the weight of ages all around me. No matter how well imagined or well-described it was, my mind was never really in New Crobuzon.

Reading this on the DLR and in the cafeteria at work, looking over the buildings that have been written across the Docklands, Miéville's divided city had the compelling power of truth. It is only a tiny step from the divided cultures that co-exist all around us to the eerie superimposition that Miéville portrays with such effortless conviction.

The divided city had the dark surrealism of Dick/Borges/Kafka and it was combined with the spy and thriller genres, which I've been reading a lot recently.I'm pretty sure Miéville wants us to see this as a supernatural phenomenon - some kind of fold in space - but the writing is ambiguously poised between this and the idea of two populations occupying the same place, but deliberately ignoring each other due to some bizarre ancient schism. It's a brilliant idea that lets Miéville in to all sorts of interesting observations about society and politics.

It particularly resonates with the state of Eastern Europe following the break up of the Soviet Union. Tiny ethnic communities are drawn apart by the pull of East and West, with dividing line now between Islam and Christianity rather than the communism versus capitalism that fuelled the split in Berlin. The City & The City feels a bit like the Cold War, but Miéville's political concerns are right up to date.

It's let down a little by the thriller plot, which lacks drive and resolves into a bit of a damp squib. The big problem is with characterisation: we just don't care about Borlu or Mahalia enough to be pulled through the story by the mystery. The final revelations are all a little mundane, particularly Breach who have all the eerie menace they exert in the first half of the book stripped from them in the second.

The richness and consistency of the central metaphor keeps you reading, though, and the atmosphere is sustained through masterly control of the reader's attention. The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma are real and distinct, and Miéville examines the cultural and psychological consequences of their separation with great insight.


  1. Me too!

    Hard to discuss this without spoiling it, so I won't even try: there are mild spoilers below.

    Actually, I felt some of the revelations in the book worked (notably how the divide was a mind trick and not some supernatural phenomenon) but the rest was not up to the anticipations that had been built. The artefacts, for instance, appear unrelated to the rest (unless I missed something) and the whole archaeology sub-plot just hangs there.

    Had it been shorter and with less resolution it would have been better, so the trick is to stop reading halfway through, I guess.

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  3. So, it was definitely a mind trick? I wasn't so sure, but tend to be a bit dense about these things. I much prefer the idea of a mind trick to a supernatural thing, but the anachronous nature of the artifacts and the mysteries surrounding their origins made me think that a supernatural split had occurred.

    These were clearly supposed to be the maguffin behind the mystery, but it wasn't until the end that we understood they were anything but historical curiosities. The idea that they had some intrinsic power came out of nowhere a bit, as did Bowden's sudden involvement in the conspiracy. Anyway, despite all this, this is a very fine book which I enjoyed immensely! As for stopping halfway, before one is spoiled - well, I can't do it with fine meals, how can I do it with fine books?


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