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“I was hemmed in by people not in my city”

Power, Space and Identity in China Miéville’s The City and the City

From  New  Corbuzon  to  UnLondon,  China  Miéville’s  works  show  a preoccupation  with  the  city  which  transcends  the  function  of  setting  and
serves as a subtext to the plot. As one of the most prominent representatives  of  weird  fiction  Miéville  constructs  cityscapes  that  fascinate  the reader  with  their  eccentricity  and  strangeness,  but  also  with  their  social, historical  and  architectural  complexity.  In  Perdido  Street  Station the eponymous landmark in New Corbuzon is essential forthe denouement of the plot rather than merely a backdrop. The city is a character in its own right.  This  is  also  and  especially  true  for  Miéville’s  2009  novel  The  City and  the  City.  Here,  the  city  seems  at  first  normal,  then  alien  and  in conclusion utterly quotidian. The way the literary space and place is built permeates  everything  in  the  novel:  the  way  the  characters  act,  the  crime plot, the philosophy and mood. At the core, The City and The City captures the everyday creation and maintenance of social space and illustrates the human capacity to deal with conflicting, layered realities of communal life and the human condition.
The City and the Cityis set in the twin city states of Besźel and Ul Qoma that occupy much of the same geographical space, but are perceivedas two very  different  cities.  The  borders  between  the  cities are  invisible  and intangible,  but  reinforced  by  citizens  by  ‘unseeing’  and  ‘unsensing’  the other one. Meaning: someone in Besźel must ignore everything Ul Qoman even what is right next to them. Some parts of the cityscape are totally in one  city  but  quite  a  few  are  ‘cross-hatched’,  meaning in  either  city depending on what is unseen. Unsight is an acquired habit, but one that is performed  unconsciously.  To  unsee  the  other  city  is  an  integral  part  of being  a  citizen  and  important  in  the  socialiation  of children.  Acknowledging the other city even accidentally is a serious crime called breaching punished  by  an  all-seeing,  all-powerful  agency  named Breach.  Why  and  how the state of separation between the cities came topass is unknown: an event ambiguously called ‘cleavage’ split or united the cities.
The City and the Citywon several awards for fantasy writing, although it is fantastic only in one aspect and – plotwise –the novel is crime fiction: a  police  procedural  with  noir  and  hard-boiled  touches  –  genres  that  lay claim on gritty realism. It is precisely this uncertainty of genre that allows a  subversive  reading  of  the  text  and  contributes  to  the  social  criticism therein. In the novel Inspector Tyador Borlú from Besźel investigates the murder of foreign student Mahalia Greary across the cities and uncovers a conspiracy to exploit the cities’ cultural heritage for profit.

 


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