Today’s young people (what the government classes as the 18-24 year olds) may have a hard time gaining a proper perspective of the Berlin of the Cold War. A city divided between the British, Americans and French in the West, and the Russians in the East. The west would eventually coalesce into one beacon of democracy deep behind Winston Churchill’s iron curtain in communist Europe. To get from one side of the city to the other, to cross from one country to another, from one way of life to another, you had to go through an artificial border (as most borders are in fact). This was where the Berlin Wall came in. Designed to stop people crossing, to stop East Germans abandoning the soviet for the capitalist. Border guards, from one nuclear super power to another, would rarely act if someone was on the other side, maybe yards away, trying to escape across and being hunted by the other sides guards. It was across a border. It was an internal matter. For the most part, on German sufferance, the West and East were happy to posture in this city for forty-five years. A city and its people the pawns of nuclear rivals.
China Mievilles story of The City and The City, a truncating of the title of a book within the book, takes that very real historical situation to an existential extreme in a hard boiled noir masterpiece.
The ‘eastern’ cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma located somewhere, independently in the Balkans, sit side by side. Not exactly East and West Berlin, but as the writer coins “gross-topically” on top of one another. This street is Besz, this street is Ul Qoman, that street is both and neither. Over centuries two cities, two distinct cultures had overlapped and merged into two nations in one space. Citizens of one, walking the same streets, in the presence of the same skylines of citizens of another have to unsee what they are seeing if it belongs to the other nation. Grey, depressing, lifeless architecture sits right beside more modern, glass fronted high rises. Two cities with their own economies, police, fashion. The noise, the smells, the animals, the traffic… all have to be unseen and negotiated without doing the one thing that unites the two nations in fear;
The Breach is not Besz, it is not Ul Quoman. It belongs to neither, operates in both, and exists between. The Breach polices the distinctions between the two and ‘disappears’ in a haunting echo of a rogues gallery of 20th century dictatorships those who have transgressed the boundaries. Breach are the bogeymen, the KGB, the Stazi, Gestapo, the secret police. But who are Breach accountable to?
When the murder of a Canadian archaeology student takes place in Ul Qoma, and her body turns up in Beszel it is apparent to both nations police that a breach has taken place. And yet… where are Breach? Why haven’t they acted?
China Mieville dials back on his wonderful manipulations of language to present an accessible story set in a fictional city state of our world. His is a study of identity, of surveillance by the state and the extent to which paranoia is a comfort. Better to be paranoid than face reality?
As a historian, used to suspending my modern day views in the act of looking at the past I was well suited to reading this book. The unique nature of the two cities requires a blunt acceptance of it, to question it could lead only to confusion. Accept the premise, and jump right in and you can experience the story as a hard boiled detective case. A murder has been committed, a mystery created, and it must be solved. Mieville does superbly to build what is a small apparently localized crime into the birth pains of a revolution, an international incident. His way of introducing and explaining the rules of the world is gentle and builds beautifully on top of one another. Neil Gaiman on the back cover calls this ‘Fiction of the new century’.
It is indeed fiction of the new century. The lessons of the old century made ever prescient in a mind bending artistic novel. China Mieville constantly takes my breath away.