I enjoyed The City & The City a lot. It was only the second book I’ve read by China Miéville. My first was Embassytown, and while that was fun, it was very flawed too. So, my expectations for Miéville’s most hyped book weren’t exactly high, and to make things worse, reading the comparisons to Kafka on the back put my inner-cynic on high alert. Still, it won 6 awards, and its premise really piqued my interest.
First things first, this is not really ‘fantasy’ fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing impossibly weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.
Something else it is not, is Kafka (*). It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Stories as The Trial and The Metamorphosis are very much about loneliness and the individual that is unable to connect with the mysteries of existence, nor with the absurdity of the world, nor with other individuals. In The Trial that oppressiveness of existence is transformed into its famous main narrative metaphor of judicial bureaucracy. The City & The City is not about the individual. It is about groupings of individuals, societies and opposing societies. The political bureaucracy in Miéville’s novel is not about the oppressiveness of existence, but about the oppressiveness of decorum. Yes, both Kafka as The City & The City are about the human condition, but about very different facets of that condition nonetheless.
All this doesn’t make TC&TC a bad book, not at all. One can easily & justifiably read it partly as political allegory. But it doesn’t begin to have the emotional impact that some of Kafka’s work has. It doesn’t come close. So, when The Times critic eagerly quoted on the back cover wrote “Kafka and Orwell tend to be invoked too easily for anything a bit out of the ordinary, but in this case they are worthy comparisons“, that critic took the easy road too – fooled by the similar surfaces of both bureaucratic metaphors. Kafka doesn’t do happy endings. Miéville does.
So, what is this book? It is a highly original, intelligent detective story set in a challenging political environment. It’s not noir, nor hardboiled, it’s just a police procedural set in an extremely nationalistic bureaucracy. The characters aren’t very noticeable, but the mystery murder story is expertly crafted: it took me some time to see the ending coming. Miéville’s prose is on the money, and has excellent, pretty realistic dialogue. In the beginning of the book he shows an interest in linguistics a few times too, done a lot better and a whole lot less pompous than in Embassytown. Sure, he still namedrops Michel Foucault and Slavoj Žižek, but overall Miéville doesn’t try to come across as clever – that’s maybe due to the fact that this book was meant as a gift to his terminally ill mother, as I read on Wikipedia. It drags a wee bit in the middle of the 373 pages, but overall, I don’t have anything negative to say about it. I loved it.
Still, I’m not sure I’ll read anything else by Miéville soon. The blurbs of most of his other books don’t really interest me. And I’ve read too much reviews that make me think I won’t really like his other famous novel, Perdido Street Station. Coincidentally, I’ve read the first 5 pages of that in a secondhand bookstore today, and decided not to buy it: it will undoubtedly hold brilliant moments, but over 650 pages of high vocabulary & weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake seems a bit too steep. Anyhow, just to be clear: The City & The City comes highly recommended.
(*) disclaimer: The Trial is one of my favorite novels, The Metamorphosis is – hands down – the best novella I’ve ever read, just as The Vulture is – hands down – the best short story I’ve ever read…