The City and the City – The Construction of National Identity

I suddenly realized that I’ve only thus far written about books by women and decided it was time to get back to the man who started this whole project, China Mieville. His The City and the City won the Hugo in 2010 and I read it in a day. Of course, this was before I started teaching and had all day to lounge in my pajamas and read books, but in any case, The City and the City is a real page-turner, perhaps owing to its detective noir facade, which I found quite appealing considering I’m on a real detective kick lately — I can’t stop watching the Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes BBC series and I’ve rekindled my love for Commander Sam Vimes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

The Plot: The novel begins with a murder of a young woman, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Unit is on the case. The identity of the victim remains a mystery until Tyador gets an anonymous phone call from Ul Quoma suggesting that the victim lived in Ul Quoma rather than Beszel. This is a problem: Ul Quoma and Beszel occupy a great deal of the same physical space, but the two are strictly divided, and travel between the two is carefully regulated. Though one can see through to Ul Quoma from Beszel, one pretends not to see; though one could easily walk from one city to the other through areas of crosshatch, one does not for fear that Breach, the organization that governs the strict division, will be invoked. In fact, Tyador views this new information as a bit of a relief; he can now turn the case over to Breach and it will be out of his hands. However, after he presents his case to government officials, new evidence comes to light indicating that the body was transported in a van from Ul Quoma to Beszel via completely legal procedures, meaning that there is no justification from invoking Breach. Instead, Tyador is sent to Ul Quoma to work with Ul Quoman Detective Inspector Qussim Dhatt. There he learns that the victim, Mahalia, was an American archaeology student working at a Canadian university dig site who happened to think that she had been contacted by Orciny, the fabled third city that exists between Beszel and Ul Quoma and is actually pulling all the strings. Mahalia had confided in two people that she had been contacted by Orciny, and Tyador tries to arrange to get both of these people out of Ul Quoma with as little government interference as possible. However, as they try to cross the border into Beszel they are attacked by a gunman on the Beszel side while still being in Ul Quoma (but this isn’t breach since he saw them down a official corridor of shared space. Tyador follows the gunman on the Ul Quoma side and shoots him committing breach and finding himself in the custody of Breach. Turns out, Breach is frantically trying to figure out if Orciny is real as well. Skipping over the part where they actually solve the murder, Tyador is denied the chance to return to his life in Beszel and instead becomes an avatar of Breach.

While the plot itself is fairly straightforward, the setting is what makes this novel so interesting. The City and the City, to me, is primarily a novel about the creation and subsequent breaking down of national identity. Most aesthetic markers in the two cities are carefully regulated: certain colors may not be used in one city or the other; clothing choices are intended to immediately mark the wearer as Besz or Ul Quoman; architecture styles are designed to create contrast between the two; a widely-growing plant in both cities is consider a natural part of the landscape in Beszel but is rooted out as a weed in Ul Quoma. And all of this is carefully maintained so that you know who to see and who to unsee as you walk down the street. Visitors to either city must be carefully trained in these markers before visiting, a process that can take several weeks. Furthermore, the languages of the cities, Besz and Illitan, are also a point of contention; Tyador comments, “Illitan bears no resemblance to to Besz. Not does it sound similar. But these distinctions are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of phonemes (if not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related — they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still” (42). This is a point that Tyador’s anonymous caller harps on, tipping him off that he is speaking to a unificationist, someone who wants to two cities to become one city. On the other side of the political spectrum are the nationalists groups who, occasionally militantly, defend the sovereignty of their respective cities.

Politics aside, it is actually Breach that ensures the separateness of the two cities, or at least the threat of Breach. Breach presents an excellent illustration of the Foucauldian panopticon: even something like seeing instead of unseeing a person in Ul Quoma can make a Besz worry about Breach. If  a Besz bus lost control and crashed in Ul Quoma, Ul Quomans would do nothing to help the passengers because of fear of Breach. What we learn as the novel progresses is that Breach is not nearly as all-knowing as people believe, but it maintains its power largely through mysteriousness — just because Breach isn’t watching all the time doesn’t mean that you know when Breach is watching.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is Tyador’s induction into Breach. His guardian/captor Ashil explains that avatars of Breach are all individuals who breached once: “If you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that” (310). And as much as Tyador doesn’t want to, he sees the truth in what Ashil says and ends the novel living in the city and the city. This idea that there is a point of knowledge that you can’t return from comes up in Embassytown as well, when the Ariekei learn to use metaphor and mourn the passing of the world that they knew through Language, and I’ve been thinking about this idea in several ways. For me personally, it speaks to a certain kind of critical awareness that you can’t come back from: as a rhetorician, I can no longer imagine seeing the world as unrhetorical. In both instances, this permanent knowledge is also associated with a change in physical space: Tyador becomes an inhabitant of both cities instead of just one or the other and Spanish Dancer will travel through the immer with Avice to other worlds. These are spaces that were previously unimaginable, for Spanish Dancer because he didn’t have the language for it and for Tyador because of the careful regulated commonplaces of his split society. I’m curious to see if this theme continues in some of Mieville’s other works, and I’ll be on the lookout for it.

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