“Schrödinger’s pedestrian”

On the train back from Stirling last night, I finished off a most remarkable book that I’ve been reading for the last few weeks.  I’d say, even, that it’s one of the best pieces of fiction, and perhaps one of the best books generally, that I’ve ever read.

The City & the City  by China Mieville is a wonderful, weird, dark, gripping story that – put most simply – is part-detective novel and part-fantasy novel.  It is set in two strange self-governing cities in Eastern Europe called Besźel and Ul Qoma, which overlap each other, occupying the same space but holding very different and separate existences.  Cuturally and in a sense spatially different due to an an ancient and not fully-explained split, the cities and their citizens effectively ignore each other, and to “breach” this division, for instance by speaking to or even acknowledging a citizen of the other city, is a most heinous crime.  Over centuries the two cities have developed different languages, alphabets, fashions, customs, architecture and even international relations; with only the barest cooperation and only one heavily-policed physical border crossing between them.

A major appeal of this book is the portrayal of this fantasy scenario in the most convincing detail – how, for instance, citizens learn to “unsee” each other across the divide even when only feet away from each other is revealed to the reader in a way that it soon seems quite normal.  The way that the two cities, separately, interact with the rest of the world is also described with what almost seems authenticity.  For instance, Besźel is a decaying city which is recognised through trade and travel access by the USA among few others, and its language and words strike the reader has a cross between German, Russian and Hungarian.  Ul Qoma, at times seeming and sounding Turkish, Italian and Albanian, has developed economically due to its strong ties with most of the rest of the world.  Both cities reside very much in the modern world, with many features that would be familiar across central and eastern Europe – both use the internet and have access to the global culture the rest of us do – but they exist in a symbiosis that is at once both strange and entirely normal.

The main character is Inspector Tyador Borlú of Besźel’s Extreme Crime Squad, who investigates the murder of an unknown woman.  It turns out that the trail has its roots in Ul Qoma, meaning a rare and challenging crossing into the other city.

Detective novels aren’t really my thing, but I am glad the tantalising cover (front and back) tempted me to buy it.  Other reviews out there refer to Kafka and Orwell, and there is perhaps a sense in which this story is a political allegory – whether for politically or socially divided cities or simply the anonymity of modern urban life where we are conditioned to ignore others around us.

The convincing portrayal of this real yet unreal scenario reminds me a lot of the way that Philip Pullman expertly and beautifully reveals the world of dæmons in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  But that’s not to say it’s portrayed as an easy life.  At one point Borlú wonders in which city the water in the river resides.  Meanwhile the title of this post, “Schrödinger’s pedestrian” is a quote from towards the end of the book when a criminal, most exceptionally, cannot be identified by the law enforcement authorities on either side as standing in one city or the other.  The dilemma arises because if he is arrested by one side but turns out to be in the other city, the arresting officers will have committed “breach”: so to do nothing avoids breach, but of course never establishes the criminal’s location or brings him to justice.

The gripping plot, curious characters and evocative descriptions of the two cities kept me going through this book, and while the tone and basis is serious, complicated (to the point of occasional confusion, especially towards the end) and dark, there is occasional and therefore surprising humour.  For instance, Borlú tells a colleague about having been to (what was then) West Berlin to attend a conference on policing in divided cities.  He has a rare opportunity of meeting a female Ul Qoman officer, and you have to laugh at his description of bonding with her at a disco to 99 Luftballons, in a striking collision of the mundanity of the disco and the near-absurdity of the geopolitical situation.

Before picking up this book, I’d never heard of China Mieville – but it seems he has quite a track record of alternative fantasy writing.  I am very tempted to try some of his other books, and would definitely recommend this as an engaging, thought-provoking and unusual story.  It’s well written, well thought-out, and definitely lingers in the mind.  It’s the sort of alternative fiction I’d love to be able to write…

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