Meditating on The City & The City

None are still like the dead are still.
— The City & The City (p.1)

The cover of The City & The City

Introduction (Spoiler-Free)

I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like The City & The City by China Miéville. The book is a murder mystery and thriller taking place in two cities — Besźel and Ul Qoma — which both share the same location in space. For the denizens of the two cities, acknowledging the existence and proximity of the other is a crime worse than other and punished accordingly. As the Besź inspector unravels the case, he discovers a Chinatown-style conspiracy connecting the two disconnected cities.

Nowhere else but the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma could have produced the conspiracy as unique, enthralling, and deeply satisfying as that of The City & The City. Miéville calls the book is weird fiction: not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, and not quite magical realism, but the book — as well as Miéville’s lucid and fresh prose — will satisfy readers of any of those three genres. I’d also like to note that the dystopian and ambiguously supernatural undertones of The City & The City inspired Disco Elysium, my favorite video game of all time.

The City & The City is such a strong narrative and piercing social critique that it motivated me to finally publish this website so I could share my thoughts and analysis. I highly recommend you read the book before reading further. (I’ve purposely written the next section in a way that probably won’t make sense without the context of the book.) The themes and twisting narrative of the story benefit greatly from a blind first read, and I can’t say much more without spoiling the impact of The City & The City.

There are parts where even individual trees are crosshatched, where Ul Qoman children and Besź children clamber past each other, obeying their parents’ whispered strictures to unsee the other. (p. 195)

Historical view of Trier, Germany, by Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg, 1572. Georg Braun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Historical view of Trier, Germany. Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Analysis (Heavy Spoilers)

A Home Owners' Loan Corporation map of redlining in Chicago. Kara Zelasko, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons A Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map of redlining in Chicago. Kara Zelasko, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A common form of establishment, for much of Besźel’s history, had been the DöpplirCaffé: one Muslim and one Jewish coffee-house, rented side by side, each with its own counter and kitchen, halal and kosher, sharing a single name, sign, and sprawl of tables, the dividing wall removed. Mixed groups would come, greet the two proprietors, sit together, separating on communitarian lines only long enough to order their permitted food from the relevant side, or ostentatiously from either and both in the case of freethinkers. Whether the DöpplirCaffé was one establishment or two depended on who was asking: to a property tax collector, it was always one. (p. 22)

My first reaction while reading the book was that Besźel and Ul Qoma are obviously a single city, living as two. That one is a boom town and the other is decaying, that the citizens demarcate themselves by their mannerisms, that the two cities follow different laws, and that only main roads and areas are “crosshatched” is a clear metaphor for class, racial, and legal discrimination. It is a scathing critique on the absurdity of human separation and the lengths that we go to police borders. “In Besźel” or “in Ul Qoma” are hardly geographic terms: they are social labels.

The comparisons to modern and historical separation abound. Explicit comparisons are drawn between Berlin, which was famously divided into East and West Berlin by the Berlin Wall and the violently enforced no-man’s-land between them, and Jerusalem, which is claimed in its entirety by Israel despite the rejection of the annexation of East Jerusalem by the United Nations. Corwi’s reaction to the comparisons indicates that the government of Besźel would take offense to the implication that Besźel and Ul Qoma are just a single city: the implication is the separation of Berlin and Jerusalem are not separated enough to merit politically correct comparison to Besźel and Ul Qoma.

View of Antwerp from Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Georg Braun, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons View of Antwerp from Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s worth praising how Miéville subtly unravels the social reality of the cities. It’s described quite ambiguously at first; I wasn’t sure when I was reading it if the relationship between Besźel and Ul Qoma was supernatural or not. Perhaps there was some kind of supernatural or magical force separating the two cities that occasionally fails or “leaks”. Borlú appears to infer that the reader knows the relationships between Breach, Besźel, and Ul Qoma. The reader must glean the relationship between them from multiple descriptions. This miscommunication on the part our narrator speaks to how deeply this social relationship pervades Borlú’s life and his development:

The early years of a Besź (and presumably an Ul Qoman) child are intense learnings of clues. We pick up styles of clothing, permissible colors, ways of walking and holding oneself, very fast. Before we were eight or so most of us could be trusted not to breach embarrassingly and illegally, though license of course is granted children every moment they are in the street. (66)

By the end of the book it’s clear that there is nothing supernatural at work (even Bowden’s magic artifact is never discharged). Breach’s mysterious ability to suddenly appear at breach sites is simply them blending in with both cities simultaneously, and the need for citizens of both cities to unsense allows Breach to hide in plain sight. That the separation is socially constructed rather than based in material reality allows for ambiguity that both Breach and Bowden exploit (and one that echoes ambiguity in the entirely social concepts of race, nationality, and gender). The sublime, omnipotent force of Breach that Borlú describes witnessing as a teenager gives way to just people. Very powerful people yes, but just people who are even familiar enough that an average person can recognize their badges. That the relationship between these factions appears so mysterious and supernatural is an incredible conceit on Miéville’s part; The City & The City’s very premise reveals that the social is fantastical.

The Berlin Wall in 1986. Noir, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons The Berlin wWll in 1986. Noir, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is no surprise that this social construct is policed by an organization as powerful as Breach. Breach is the omnipresence and weight of social norms; the word itself should be read in the sense of “transgress” rather than “perforate”. They do not have agents, but “avatars”. The citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma have traded away the freedom to wear certain clothes and act in certain ways. Even pretending not to perceive the world around them is not a price too steep to pay: they live in a panopticon administered by an “alien power”, a shadowy, undemocratic, and violent organization. They fear breaching. These sacrifices are made all for the sake of their border.

But the surveillance and ever-present threat of violence is still insufficient to maintain the separation. The separation succeeds because the Besź and Ul Qomans work to uphold the collective social delusion that two cities do not actually exist alongside each other. At the end of the book, Ashil explains,

“It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. [Breach is] only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does.” (310)

Borlú concludes the book by saying his job as part of Breach is “not to uphold the law, or another law, but to maintain the skin that keeps the law in place.” (312) The Besź and Ul Qomans practice a kind of doublethink: Borlú works tirelessly, every moment of the story, to ignore Ul Qoma, to pretend that it is not there. But to unsense the other city, he must be not only aware that it is there, but aware enough to discern it from his own. Even Breach engages in this doublethink: they know the separation is a farce — breaching is required to become a Breach avatar! — and yet they devote their lives to violently enforce it on others.

Segregated drinking fountains. Tullio Saba, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Segregated drinking fountains. Tullio Saba, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The violation of the boundary is also necessary for Borlú and Ashil to reach the helicopter atop the Sear and Core building. Had Ashil and Borlú been hamstrung by the separation of the cities, as Borlú, Dhatt, and Corwi inevitably were for most of the book, Buric would have escaped. (Miéville is a Marxist, so the mastermind behind the whole conspiracy being a Social Democrat and working with international capital and far right nationalists — who are too stupid to know they’re being manipulated, much less run the scheme themselves — reads as both a revelation and a punch line.) The enforcement of the social construct requires violating it.

Avatars are not the only serial breachers. Characters frequently acknowledge the diffusion between the two cities; Borlú breaches before even the first chapter is done. Litter and animals breach; the foreign students even make a game out of it. Borlú admits that everyone inevitably breaches often, but that they are forgiven if the incidents are discreet enough.

A border checkpoint in the West Bank. Picture taken by Justin McIntosh, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons A border checkpoint in the West Bank. Picture taken by Justin McIntosh, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Borlú’s attitude towards politics is notable. He at multiple times assures characters that he is apolitical, yet repeatedly antagonizes unificationists and nationalists; by the end of the book, he is an avatar of Breach. The point is that Borlú’s treatment of Besźel and Ul Qoma as different cities is political. When interrogating Drodin, Borlú admits, “Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary between Besźel and Ul Qoma had to observe it most carefully” (52), while he, a police officer, is allowed light violations. That the unificationists are fringe radicals and something as ridiculous as unsensing is commonplace speaks to the a wildly distorted Overton window. Only in the three concluding sentences of the The City & The City does Borlú, in a roundabout way, appear to admit that the two cities are one:

We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live. On that issue I am a liberal. I live in the interstice yes, but I live in both the city and the city. (312)

“Where I am” most likely refers to Breach, but I think a more interesting reading is that the Breach agents are referring to the whole of both Besźel and Ul Qoma. In this reading, the use of the word “liberal” to mean “unificationist” is sign that the Overton window has shifted in the wake of the breach in the climax, which is described as almost cathartic:

It must be an intoxication to step through the borders and greet their foreign comrades across what they suddenly made one street, to make their own country even if just for seconds at night in front of a scrawled slogan and a broken window. (280)

Budapest by Wagner & Debes, 1913. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Budapest by Wagner & Debes, 1913. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Besźel and Ul Qoma are never explained. That the question is raised repeatedly is Miéville telling us that history is important. That the question is never answered implies that it would not change the message of the book, and that obfuscation of history makes the socially constructed appear natural. A unificationist would not know whether to advocate for the continued merging of the cities, or their reunification. (It’s worth noting that Budapest, which the cities are compared to, is the the child of an 1873 merger of the three cities of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest. This may be meant to imply that Besźel and Ul Qoma merged, perhaps splitting Orciny between them. Alternatively, that Orciny no longer exists — and maybe never did in the first place — could debunk this interpretation.)

At the start of this section, I said that my initial reaction had been that Besźel and Ul Qoma are obviously the same city. Analyzing a bit more deeply, I think this is not so obvious. The people in the two cities clearly live vastly different lives, separately, as two people. But many people the world over live under different legal systems, affect differently, and avoid areas in their city based under their social group under threat of censure, harassment, violence, or death. These people effectively live in different cities, even if those cities officially share the same name; they experience one city as two. Besźel and Ul Qoma have different governments, different cultures, different territories, and different economies, and that failing to observe the distinction carries severe consequences, is real. The point is that the social construct has teeth, and the separation is enforced.

Miéville’s work on the people living in a fictional one-city-as-two, that we must call separately as Besźel and Ul Qoma because we lack any other name, is a piercing critique of the absurdity of segregation and separation. But what makes this dark satire so deeply moving to me is that embedded within it is the hope that people may some day live together as one.

Stockholm viewed from the South, from Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Mats Halldin 21:04, 12 January 2008 (UTC), Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsStockholm viewed from the South, from Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Mats Halldin 21:04, 12 January 2008 (UTC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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