Friday, April 16, 2010

The City & The City and The Other City

The City & The City

Having read two of China Miéville’s previous novels, Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) -- two shuddering, juddering, shambling mounds of story, parts of which work quite well and parts of which do not -- I was prepared to expect whopper-jawed plotting and inventive imagery. Instead, The City & The City (British edition: Macmillan, 2009; U.S. edition: Del Rey, 2009) takes the form of a conventional police procedural -- a police procedural that is emotionally flat and uninflected.

The crux of the book is the setting: two Eastern European cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, foreign to each other, are superimposed in the same space, where it is against the law to interact with or even look at the people and buildings of the city that is not your own. The citizens of both cities are required to master the ability of not seeing the other city and its inhabitants as they go about their lives, walking around obstacles that they are not allowed to overtly perceive.

Miéville cites Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz in his acknowledgements, and fans of those authors likely will be entranced by the overlapping cities. It is the precision of Miéville’s rigorously worked out concept that moves this slightly fantastic setting into the realm of science fiction. Miéville invents a vocabulary to describe the odd societally-imposed gymnastics of what citizens can and cannot perceive. “Crosshatch” refers to spaces that are simultaneously in use by both cities. Inhabitants of one city “unsee” the buildings and “unnotice” the people of the other city. “Breach” is the term for violating these rules; it is also the name of a mysterious and powerful agency that ruthlessly enforces the separation of the cities. Unificationists are radicals who advocate the merger of the two cities.

The story concerns a murder investigation that unfolds methodically, and it provides an excuse to tour the strange dual existence of the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Unfortunately, the murder mystery plods somewhat and only very slowly gains enough momentum to hold the reader’s interest.

A similar strategy was used in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins, 2007). Here, too, a detective story allows the author to provide a tour of an exotic, science fictional setting. Chabon’s alternate-world setting is one where Jewish refugees are resettled in Alaska after World War II. Chabon’s character interactions seem lively compared to the perfunctory tone of the central character of The City & The City, Inspector Tyador Borlú.

Among Miéville’s many nice touches in The City & The City are the different architectural styles and economic statuses of the two cities, ancient artifacts that may or may not have unusual properties, and enough shadings regarding the secretive Breach agency to leave open the question of whether their powers are fantastic in nature.

The Other City
The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (translation by Gerald Turner, Dalkey Archive, 2009; originally published in Czech in 1993), on the other hand, contains all the outrageous and endlessly inventive imagery that I had expected to find in The City & The City and did not. The Other City concerns two Eastern European cities superimposed in the same space, too. Here, the cities are not mutually ignoring each other. One city is Prague; the other city is a secret city that is fully aware of Prague, while citizens of Prague are rarely aware of it.

The surreal imagery leaps from a fish festival, to sepulchral streetcars, to a shark attack in a church tower, with something wild on nearly every page.

A couple of quotes picked at random:
They all took little wooden caskets out of their bags and placed them on the desk in front of them. Then they removed their lids. There was a rustling sound and weasels stuck their heads out of the caskets, resting their forelegs on the front side of the caskets and started to hiss. The listeners stood at attention; so did I. Although there was little light in the lecture room, the people standing alongside me soon noticed that I had no animal hissing in front of me. A scandalized whispering spread around the room and soon the entire auditorium was staring at me. (p. 43)
The red blood trickled across the floor and soaked into the tassels of the carpet. In the foreground of the room the anonymous artist had painted a writing desk with several letters scattered on its surface; on the envelope of one of them could be seen a letterhead with the words Société des Bains de Mer. At the edge of the desk a thick book lay open; a ray of light from the adjacent room fell onto this part of the canvas, so I was able to read the text on its pages. It was The Odyssey and the line: O moi ego, teon aute broton es gaian ikano -- “Alas, what country have I come to now?”  (p. 120)
Our narrator pursues an elusive young woman from the other city. What emerges is a fantastical tour of Prague, with well-known landmarks and others less well-known. The dreamlike sights and events become circular and interwoven to a degree. Still, there is at times a distinct lack of story to drive the narrative.

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