Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Elementary urban arithmetic

"Stick us to crowds," I told him. "And to crosshatching." More people, and where the two cities are close up they make for interference patterns, harder to read or predict. They are more than a city and a city; that is elementary urban arithmetic.


China Miéville is cool. His new book, The City & the City, also very cool. It's billed as an existential thriller. The thriller part I get; it's a police procedural with overtones of a political conspiracy. So far, so cool (even if not cool or thrilling, or heart-pumpingly horrifying, on the same level as the Bas-Lag books).

The existential part I'm still grappling with (in a good way). The cities, you see, Besźel and Ul Qoma, share the same physical space, grosstopically speaking. They're kind of quantum-state city-states.

The best I can wrap my head around it, it's like when you don't have cable TV and the reception is just plain shitty, and you get two pictures coming in on near the same frequency, and you can actually watch one or the other of the programs if you focus your attention just right.

There are physical, spatial difficulties associated with this set-up, for the cities' citizens, as well as for my own understanding of the concept. There are borders, checkpoints. And there is an independent authority, Breach, to keep breach of the rules to a minimum.

To complicate matters, throw in a mythical third city, the grail of the murder victim, and investigated online by Inspector Borlú in the forums at fracturedcity.org (which URL redirects users to the publisher's site).

"Orciny's the third city. It's between the the other two. It's in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Besźel thinks are Ul Qoma's and Ul Qoma Besźel's. When the old commune split, it didn't split into two, it split into three. Orciny's the secret city. It runs things."

If split there was. That beginning was a shadow in history, an unknown — records effaced and vanished for a century either side. Anything could have happened. From that historically brief quite opaque moment came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants that delighted and horrified investigators. All we know is nomads on the steppes, then these black-box centuries of urban instigation — certain events, and there have been films and stories and games based on speculation (all making the sensor at least a little twitchy) about that dual birth — then history comes back and there are Besźel and Ul Qoma. Was it schism or conjoining?

As if that were not mystery enough and as if two crosshatched countries were insufficient, bards invented that third, the pretend-existing Orciny. On top floors, in ignorable Roman-style townhouses, in the first wattle-and-daub dwellings, taking up the intricately conjoined and disjointed spaces allotted it in the split or coagulation of the tribes, the tiny third city Orciny ensconced, secreted between the two brasher city-states. A community of imaginary overlords, exiles perhaps, in most stories machinating and making thins so, ruling with a subtle and absolute grip. Orciny was where the Illuminati lived. That sort of thing.


So. This idea of the double (or triple) city, this crosshatched interweaving — really cool.

It's implied that Besźel and Ul Qoma are divided along religious lines, Jewish and Muslim, though on rereading certain passages, I can't be certain that the example of the DöplirCaffé with its side-by-side kosher and halal counters wasn't thrown out as an example merely analogous of the kind of coexistence there once was or might be hoped for or is occasionally illicitly achieved.

Regardless, it's clear that the two cities have very distinct cultures and political differences: separate languages, modes of dress, trade agreements. They are peopled by nationalists and unificationists, though mostly just by regular people.

Inspector Borlú once attended a conference on policing split cities. Budapest, Jerusalem, Berlin. To include Besźel and Ul Qoma in this class was an insult. The boundary between them is not a physical one described by our known spatial dimensions. This is not a matter of East and West. Besźel buildings occupy the same physical space as Ul Qoma buildings, each with their own architectural features. The separation is a state of mind, a citizen living in their own culture and simply refusing to see the other.

I've been thinking a lot about this as I walk the streets of my own city. While there are sections of Montreal that are distinctly French and distinctly English, I live and work in an in-between, and I live in that mixed city in a different way than do my francophone colleagues. We are so bound by our habits, if not our prejudices, to see the streets as having different cultural textures and colours. I've never noticed this café or that shop because they are not part of my English world; they are mere dark doorways I pass quickly by and pay no attention to. On other stretches of street, these dark patches may loom ominously. How you see your space is a trick of your mind as much as it is a function of your visual cortex.

Despite having cleverly used the laws of the two cities to his own advantage in terms of jurisdiction and played the natural tendencies and prejudices of their citizens, the murderer is found out eventually. Inspector Borlú achieves a unique status upon closing the case, a kind of promotion to working for a rather different authority. And I'd love to read about his further travails in topolganger policing.
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