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Chris Carlsson

What We Don’t See: China Miéville’s ‘The City & The City’

9:30 AM PDT on October 27, 2009

not_seeing_people_9140.jpgInvisible people are all around us!

Once you start thinking about it, what we don't see is a much bigger category than what we do see. But what we don't see ON PURPOSE is a really interesting category. When you add to the mix mobility, walking or riding or driving through city streets, not seeing can become a mysteriously dangerous stew indeed!

In The Botany of Desire food scribe Michael Pollan gives a history from the point of view of four plants: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana. In his description of human response to marijuana he describes what he calls the "cannabinoid system," a system of nerves and chemicals in our brains (somewhat analogous to a nervous system) that serves to screen out extraneous information. I had always been puzzled by the effects of marijuana on most people, but this helped explain it. Not only does it make you feel good, it also tends to make it difficult to multi-task for most people. Your ability to concentrate is impaired. Or is it? Pollan suggests that marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, Tetrahydrocannabinol, enhances the effects of the cannabinoid system, screening out even more than usual, leaving us with all our senses filled with whatever is front and center-a bowl of ice cream, sex, a visually stimulating movie or art show, or what have you…

"Miéville has given us an extraordinary meditation on otherness. Whether we gaze out from our nation on the peoples of the world and see something less than we are (we're #1?), or we walk past the homeless person sprawled in their own vomit, we are all adept at not seeing."

But there's more to the mysteries of perception and actually seeing than that. A great number of art critics have addressed these issues in ways far more sophisticated than I can (not to mention that perhaps Streetsblog is an odd place for such ruminations!). But I found a great novel recently that cleverly brings these questions to the forefront, science fiction author China Miéville's The City & The City.

Miéville is a much-honored writer best known for his mind-bending trilogy set around a weird imperial city called New Crobazon, full of humans and other creatures including a horrifying array of bioengineered "remades." If you haven't checked out Perdido Street Station or The Scar or The Iron Council, I highly recommend them.

The City & The City is a complete departure from the twisted nightmares of his famous triology. But his grasp for the fear and horror that lie at the edges of our daily lives haunt this book in more subtle, but perhaps more powerful ways. Instead of an imaginary world of inexplicable species and uncertain rules of physics, in this book we get a thrilling murder mystery. The setting for this story is what takes it out of the realm of the run-of-the-mill and into a Kafka-esque puzzle palace equally political and psychological as it is a criminal. It starts out with the discovery of a dead woman's body in a derelict corner of the city of Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is our hero and narrates most of the tale. Based on these proper nouns alone, we strain to figure out where in the world we are. Serbia? Bosnia? Maybe Bulgaria or Moldova?... But before long we find out that Besźel has a neighboring city called Ul Qoma, a name that sounds Arabic, leading a casual reader to think we must be in the Balkans somewhere. But these fictional twin cities are actually in different countries, never named, and have an extremely unusual relationship that lies at the heart of the story.

"As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrász, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realized that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone."

What is going on? This is in the first twenty pages and immediately we are puzzled and trying to figure out what the author means… "unnoticing"? As the story progresses, we slowly get a more complete picture of an almost impossible urban space. Two cities, rigidly separated, but completely interpenetrating one another. Children taught from an early age how to not see. Here's a passage much later in the book, when Inspector Borlú is on the other side in Ul Qoma with his counterpart Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt, gazing from Dhatt's window:

"It was quickly obvious that Dhatt lived within a mile, in grosstopic terms, of my own house. From their living room I saw that Dhatt and Yallya's rooms and my own overlooked the same stretch of green ground, that in Besźel was Majdlyna Green and in Ul Qoma was Kwaidso Park, a finely balanced crosshatch. I had walked in Majdlyna myself often. There are parts where even individual trees are crosshatched, where Ul Qoman children and Besź children clamber past each other, each obeying their parents's whispered strictures to unsee the other."

Crosshatching refers to the overlapping parts of the city, where along one block some buildings are Besź and others are Ul Qoman. Public thoroughfares are also crosshatched, so that as you walk down the street you have to "unsee" people from the other side, but at the same time, make sure not to run into them. If you're driving on one of these cross-hatched streets you have to avoid "protubs" (i.e. vehicles from the other side) that are in your path but without actually seeing them, or mentally noting their existence.


The novel's plot involves the dead woman, who was apparently murdered on the Ul Qoma side and brought across the border and dumped in Besźel. But it's still not that straightforward because moving from one side to the other is only possible by navigating a two-sided bureaucratic procedure that would have made East Germany proud at the height of the Cold War. Physically, in spite of the overlapping, crosshatched cities where citizens "invisibly" live cheek-by-jowl, one is only allowed to officially go to the other side through a sprawling structure called Copula Hall. Inside Copula Hall is something of a mystery house with strangely bending corridors and odd walls, guards from either side keeping their backs to their counterparts.

Citizens on both sides live in great fear of a mysterious 3rd force called "Breach," which swoops down and seizes anyone guilty of "breach." If you see the people on the other side, if you hand an item across the boundary, if you interact or speak to someone who is from the other side, Breach appears out of nowhere and seizes you, and you disappear. It is equivalent to death in the minds of the citizens of both cities, which reinforces the urgent self-control that makes everyone reflexively "not see" not just the people but also the vehicles and buildings from the other side, even though they are perfectly visible.

The murder mystery brings together the detectives from either side, who are in a state of turf war and competition until their respective frustrations with their bureaucratic limitations leads them to extraordinary cooperation. Fluttering around the murder are a series of subplots involving political dissenters (unificationists), extreme nationalists (True Citizens), an archeological dig, and unequal economic development (Besźel is run down with little foreign investment, while Ul Qoma is booming; the vehicles on either side are also quite different, gleaming fast new cars on Ul Qoma's side and old beaters on the Besźel side.)

When looking at the archeological site, the detectives ruminate:

"I'm sure you're aware of all the controversy around early artefacts in this region, Inspector. Bol Ye'an's uncovering pieces that are a good couple of millennia old. Whichever theory you subscribe to on Cleavage, split or convergence, what we're looking for predates it, predates Ul Qoma and Besźel. It's root stuff... You understand we know next to nothing about the culture that produced all this?"

More than half the book has passed by the time Borlú gets permission to pursue his investigation in Ul Qoma. Going over is a rare experience, and he hasn't done it for a long time. As a high-ranking detective he is given a fast orientation on his way across:

"Mostly, as with our own equivalents, the orientation course was concerned to help a Besź citizen through the potentially traumatic fact of actually being in Ul Qoma, unseeing all their familiar environs, where we lived the rest of our life, and seeing the buildings beside us that we had spent decades making sure not to notice…

They sat me in what they called an Ul Qoma simulator, a booth with screens for inside walls, on which they projected images and videos of Besźel with the Besź buildings highlighted and their Ul Qoman neighbors minimized with lighting and focus. Over long seconds, again and again, they would reverse the visual stress, so that for the same vista Besźel would recede and Ul Qoma shine.

How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realize that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border…"

Miéville has given us an extraordinary meditation on otherness. Whether we gaze out from our nation on the peoples of the world and see something less than we are (we're #1?), or we walk past the homeless person sprawled in their own vomit, we are all adept at not seeing. The day-to-day invisibility of bicyclists and pedestrians is another all-too-common example. By making it an active process of "unseeing," Miéville's novel highlights the automatic quality of most of our own not-seeing. We mostly don't choose to not see, much like the citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma don't have to choose because they've been inculcated in not seeing since earliest childhood. Maybe by being shown not seeing in such a stark and unexpected way we gain a better view of our own blind spots. We maybe have been trained to not see too, but there is no Breach to disappear us if we learn to see things as they really are.

The Emperor's New Clothes fell off Bush right away, but the new guy is still walking around like he's got a fine suit on, even though his nakedness is clearly apparent. The Orwellian world so many hoped had been left behind has only become more absurd as Obama fondles his Peace Prize while authorizing more missile strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan in his first 9 months than Bush did in three years. Seeing through the Spectacle of Power is one thing, but seeing what's really going on in our daily lives is another. Literary efforts like The City & The City cleverly illuminate our synaptic self-delusions while telling us a great story.

not_seeing_people_22nd_and_val_9133.jpgHow often do we not see who or what is in front of us?

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