City and the City

What is it?

A crime novel by fascinating author, China Miéville, set in the fictitious Eastern European cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The driving narrative force of this novel, and the subject of the above drawing, is the relationship between these two cities.

Beszel and Ul Qoma are unique cities, each with its own architecture, fashion, history, economy and identity, yet they are enmeshed. They are overlaid one on top of the other, they share the same geographical space, they are crosshatched. Parts of this impossible doppel-city exist wholly in either Beszel or Ul Qoma, parts as small as a house or as big as a neighbourhood. Other parts are crosshatched, streets that exist in both cities, their inhabitants carefully interweaving between one another without ever interacting.

There are many aspects of the two cities that are in sync, a park that is shared by both, shopping districts that exist independently of one another but nevertheless side by side. Other aspects are less serendipitous: a slum in Ul Qoma coexists with a modest residential area in Beszel; a rundown industrial area in Beszel with a vibrant commercial district in Ul Qoma. One can walk between boarded up factories in Beszel, deep within the shadow of a new Ul Qoman skyscraper.

But to cross between the countless invisible boundaries between the two cities is more illegal than murder, it is Breach. An inhabitant of Beszel cannot let even his gaze linger on a fragment of Ul Qoma lest Breach be invoked and an unseen police squad materialise to enforce and reinforce the urban scission. Children in both cities are taught to read and write, to count and, most importantly, to recognise in their bones the many nuanced differences between their compatriots and the foreigners: the way both peoples walk, the details in their shopfronts, in their clothing. An adult raised this way need not even look away to avoid Breach, he simply unsees that which is foreign. He unsees the foreign people, the cars and their unfamiliar license plates, all the events that are right next to him and a whole city away.

Is this phenomena supernatural or architectural? What would it be like to inhabit one of the doppels, to exist in an urban environment with such a filigreed yet fundamental network of divisions? Imagine the blind spot one would have to develop just to survive! At the edge of liminal understanding, half of one’s city right in front of one’s face yet unseen.

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