Book review: The City&The City

THE CITY & THE CITYBY CHINA MIÉVILLEMacmillan, 312 pp, £17.99

TO QUOTE WINSTON CHURCHILL, China Miville's new novel is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The City & the City is like a sinister Russian doll that reveals increasingly unsettling surprises the more you unpack it.

The all-encompassing enigma is the surreal setting, which has characters going back and forth over the border between the city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The mystery that drives the plot is the brutal murder of a foreign national who has dared to cross the cultural divide. The riddle at the centre of these nested conundrums is the question of what kind of story this really is.

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Set in the disputed territories on the eastern fringes of contemporary Europe, it begins traditionally enough with the discovery of the corpse of an unidentified young woman in a dilapidated Beszel housing estate. Inspector Tyador Borl of the Extreme Crime Squad takes on the case and finds himself being led down some very mean streets indeed. But as its title makes clear, the novel is a tale of two cities because impoverished Beszel has an extremely difficult relationship with Ul Qoma, its prosperous neighbour.

The exact nature of that unusual association is one of the mysteries that Miville unravels as his decent and determined hero doggedly tracks down the murderer and the truth. Borl's problem is that the cities are not simply adjacent, but "cross-hatched" or intermingled. The inhabitants literally have to turn a blind eye to people and places in their midst unless they're prepared to negotiate the strictly policed frontier.

Miville, best known for the Bas-Lag trilogy of baroque urban fantasies that began with Perdido Street Station, has continually experimented with what fantasy fiction can and should be. The publishers describe The City & the City as having shades of Franz Kafka, Philip K Dick and Raymond Chandler. The book certainly lies somewhere in this sprawling fictional territory but, like his two imaginary settings, Miville's work resists being neatly categorised.

Borl has to examine the same issues as his creator when the murder investigation takes him over the border between Beszel and Ul Qoma, and in classic murder-mystery tradition, no-one is quite who they seem. Even as the identity of the victim is uncovered, the matters of who committed the crime, and where and why it was done, become more perplexing. The problem of jurisdiction is complicated by the sinister forces of Breach, the occult conspiracy which enforces the consensual schizophrenia of the two cities.

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the question of whether this novel is a continuation or a break from Miville's earlier work. One point of reference is Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, which feature neither magic nor monsters, but are not set in what we would call the real world. There is a sense of generic ambiguity: you can fly to Beszel and Ul Qoma from Istanbul and Paris, you can check your e-mail or make an international telephone call, but this dangerous never-never land is defined by an alien mindset that outsiders find almost impossible to grasp.

The mingling of familiarity and dislocation is emphasised by the author's abandonment of the flamboyant prose of his earlier work. The terse dialogue and muscular description are evocative and compelling, but there's a pleasing sense of otherness that contributes to the escalating tension. In fact, The City & the City reads like a very good translation.

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Several great Eastern European writers have clearly influenced Miville. He has said that The City & the City is essentially an attempt to triangulate between Chandler, on the one hand, and the works of Kafka, Alfred Kubin and Bruno Schulz, on the other. This unusual strategy works remarkably well: the increasingly mythic nature of the detective's nightmarish quest is complemented by the dream-like qualities and angular rhythms derived from translated Eastern European prose.

The question still remains: what kind of novel is this? On one level, it's certainly a crime story, even if it represents a very unusual one. There is an emotionally involving case to be solved and the hero has to stand up to the authorities to ensure that justice is served.

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But the procedural aspects of the novel are its most conventional elements. What makes The City & the City distinctive is the mental topography that the characters inhabit, a debatable land that crosses the border between political allegory and legitimate speculation while refusing to be wholly claimed by either.

The closest analogy is to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel that plays a similar game with the reader. Many commentators have argued that this is a fable that should not be considered as science fiction even though it is set in what was once the future. In fact, Orwell's dystopia is very much an example of that pariah genre because the central proposition is speculative: the enforced limitation of language can control human thought.

China Miville has stepped over a line, the police line that warns fantasy writers DO NOT CROSS. Nevertheless, The City & the City is not a renunciation of his earlier work, but a defiant and rewarding extrapolation of his defining themes. He has not written a fantasy but a novel of sociological speculation that dissects the invisible barriers that people wilfully and foolishly erect between themselves and others.