Thursday, March 11, 2010

china mieville: the city and the city

Teal deer warning.

#23 The City and the City, China Miéville

Now this is how you defeat [many] expectations. What a thrillingly confounding read this was. After a point of time I just threw up my hands and said to the book, okay then, bring it. It brought it.

Orhan Pamuk once said [I paraphrase] that a novel is an essentially liberal tool because its point is to tell us about people who are not like us. Now arguably, you could say that since a novel’s further point, by and large, is to tell you that people who are not like you are in fact in their own way just like you, the novel is a tool of The Man, soothing the ineffable fears of the chaise-longue-occupying, page-turning class.

The City and the City junks these oppositions quite markedly. I’m afraid soothing is in abeyance here. At every level we are dealing with an alienation from and a resistance to the familiar – a classic diagnosis of the malaise of the city. And the city. Beszel and Ul Qoma are two alter-cities [if I have that correct] that occupy the same set of spaces. They are divided by a bizarre, alarming and shadowy border, one that requires the people of each city to divide themselves from each other totally. They ‘unsee’ each other’s surroundings and each other, even if they are on the same street or the same apartment block. To violate this cardinal rule is to invoke the fearsome powers of Breach, the omnipotent security force responsible for keeping borders intact. The protocol for citizens is as elaborate as a Google algorithm […one of the elaborate ones, anyway]; the rules for tourists and businesspeople are almost worse. When a murdered corpse turns up in Beszel, the journey to find the criminal takes the Besz policeman Tyador Borlú on a dangerous journey in which he has to negotiate the geography and the politics of both cities.

The Beszel and Ul Qoma borders are not exactly inimical as understood in our world. They are not the borders across which bombs are lobbed and walls are built [to be broken] and star-crossed love stories conducted. The culture of resistance exists, but in an apparently desultory way. The separation here is seemingly absolute and on equal terms – there is no easy analogy to be drawn to the relationship between, citizens and a slave class, or the occupiers and the occupied, or the trauma of what ought never to have been divided. In a city like Bombay it may seem impossible to really 'unsee' anything at any time, but this is a fallacy. In fact, the invisibility we are constantly enforcing in over-pressured cities is that of our relationships with each other. We unsee the other variables in our equations of power. Beszel and Ul Qoma are caught up in the same arithmetic, but in ways that the narrative leaves ambiguous. It leaves a lot ambiguous.

Since my interest in the book was first sparked by its relationship with Raymond Chandler, I have to address its debt to Chandler. This is marked in the novel’s atmospherics, its protagonist’s, uhm, project of distancing, its intense awareness of place [and how it plays with that conceit to astounding effect]. In spirit, it is less obvious. Philip Marlowe’s coolness is a slightly fey charade: he is a ferociously sentimental character, a dogged romantic and a bit of an ideologue. He is much more rooted in his city and his place in it, though, than Borlú, who is a cop.

And Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a warm, almost tropical city. Reading a Marlowe book is still a wholly sensual experience of the living organism, bright lights, bars, cars and all. There’s something much more austere going on in Beszel and Ul Qoma – the atmosphere, particularly once the plot hurtles into thriller-mode where gun battles and life-savings are rife, is a bit more Cold War Le Carré than anything, I thought? And I find it particularly striking that both of them are city-states, and the laws that bind them and drive the plot of the novel forward are not the porous and symbiotic rules of cities, but the more absolute laws of nations.

Is there something reactionary to the constant movement of The City and the City against the grain? I would not say so. It’s not a dogmatic book in the way intensely self-aware writing can sometimes be, nor is it simply a funhouse mirror held up to its own influences. It is subverting. I am still unconvinced on some aspects of that subversion, though. For example, on the first page of the book we see a naked dead woman who is thought to be a prostitute. Later we discover that the naked dead woman is not a prostitute. Point taken. But she is still a naked dead woman. Sadly there are very few ways you can neutralise this image in art, let alone subvert it. Similarly, my discomfort over the cultural signifiers of Ul Qoma was sustained throughout the novel. Textually it starts off as and remains the Other – where is all the badass Qussim Dhatt fanfic, anyway? Its markers are, to borrow a word from the Wall Street Journal, ‘Islamist.’ Broadly, of course, totally broadly. Now, a writer is always free to alienate the markers of an ‘othered’ culture and incorporate it in their work, even in service of commenting on or criticising the othering. But with the noblest of intentions and legerdemain to burn, it is still, in this case, appropriation. Or am I wrong to think so?

I haven’t yet seen the new Chandan Arora film Striker, but one of its reviewers quoted a line of dialogue from it: Us waqt humko yeh maloom nahin tha, ki Bombay ko jitna dekho, roz thoda aur dikhta hai. We did not then know that no matter how long you look at Bombay, every day you see a little more of it.

I found this rather profound in the context of a film about the ‘93 riots. For a city where collective memory has no public value, it is a warning and a verdict. It acknowledges the smallness of our lives in a big city, the ease of assuming the role of the ignored, and of ignorance: it indicates how actors in a conflict can be complicit in a fire that we did not start. To me The City and the City is a great take on that; a complex and skilfully navigated elaboration of our capacity to see, and see more, and see less. I think I’ll read it again in a year’s time and see if it ends differently.

And now I am a bit in need of a ‘the soothing will see you now’ book. I have this one on colonial plunder in 18th century India lined up next. That should bring it sufficiently.

1 comment:

  1. Much as I like Mieville's work, this book and Iron Council underwhelmed me.

    The premise of TCATC offered so much hope, and in fact, the first few chapters - where we're still coming to understand the peculiar nature of the situation - were intriguing.

    But then, as you say, it got very Cold War-ish. It felt like he was trying so hard to fit in the city into modern geo-politics, and trying to describe (prophesize?) a place in Eastern Europe that's split up because of its Anglicised and Muslim dual-nature.

    And more than, it just felt wrong on the pyschological level. When humans want barriers, we don't fiddle about. We build walls. We build wire-fences. We don't muck around with imagined demarcations - even if Mieville suggests that's exactly what one set of people could end up doing. I don't buy it. They could build a wall across Berlin, and a wall on the West Bank, and China, and Scotland, and barbed wire to keep out Mexico. Yeh - they're building a wall here too.

    Plus, Borlú was such a poor version of Arkady Renko, who still remains (by far) the most dogged and tragi-romantic detective in fiction.