In the old days, when territory used to change hands with great regularity between Russia and Poland, an old woman was stopped one day by a cavalry patrol. ‘Good news, mother,’ one of the soldiers called to her, ‘we won the battle, and this is Poland once more.’ ‘Thank heavens,’ the old woman replied, ‘I couldn’t face another Russian winter.’
Borders have a strange, mystical power, even though they don’t actually exist. We believe everything is different there, that an arbitrary line on a map has the power to change everything, even the weather. If I fly to the USA via one of the hub airports, say Atlanta, I actually enter the country by stepping across a line at immigration control. Yet I have been inside American airspace for several hours, and the country extends around me for thousands of miles in every direction; not only that but airport workers are all within America whichever side of the line they happen to be standing. The line on the ground is an entirely imaginary border, and exists effectively for me alone.
And how wide is that line? If that line drawn on the ground is an inch wide, does that mean the border is an inch wide? Could it be narrower? Or wider? On arrival in at least one Heathrow terminal I can cross the line into the country at immigration, go through customs, and then still visit a duty free shop; which means that in at least one legal sense, taxation, I am still outside the country.
We believe in borders, they affect what we see, even when there is nothing actually there to see. Several natural eminences within Britain advertise themselves as offering views of three, or four, or five counties. You go up to that eminence, as many hundreds or even thousands of people do every year, and look out at the view, and you see exactly the same landscape stretching out in every direction. Where are the four counties? There are no lines on the ground to delineate them, there is no distinguishing characteristic that marks this set of fields out from that set of fields. We are looking at something that isn’t there to be seen.
And yet, the imaginary, non-existent border can have a profound effect on the actual here and now landscape we inhabit. That invisible line on the ground can mark the difference between one language and another, one style of architecture and another, one set of laws and another. I remember, once, in the 1960s, travelling along an impressive, well-maintained, four-lane highway in Austria, when suddenly there was a sharp divide and the road became a pitted, two-lane minor road. That divide marked the border with Italy, there was nothing else visible to say that here one country ended and another began.
A border is simultaneously a place and no place, it has zero dimension and potentially infinite width, it does not exist yet it can be the cause of wars and deaths, it changes everything and changes nothing. A border is, in other words, a perfect example of what Foucault calls a heterotopia, a place that can be whatever and, indeed, wherever, we want it to be.
Exploring the border as heterotopia, the way it is shaped and the way it shapes us, by what we choose to see or not to see of the invisible, the imaginary, the non-existent, is the intellectual driving force of China Miéville’s The City And The City. The emotional driving force, the story, is the sort of murder mystery that has become the default these days, where the dogged investigations of one man open up conspiracies far wider than could possibly have been imagined. One part of this equation makes this one of the most thrilling novels I have read in years; the other part is competent, engaging, exhibits all the virtues and few of the vices of the form, yet is ultimately and distinctly unthrilling.
We are in Ruritania, or at least in one of those Balkan states that represents the exotic within Europe. This particular Ruritania is called Beszel, run down, grubby, one of those places that hasn’t quite caught up with the twenty-first century. Except that this ordinariness is countered by one extraordinary fact: the city of Beszel shares its geography with another city, another country, Ul Qoma. There are some districts that are entirely Beszel, some that are entirely Ul Qoma, but mostly they are layered over each other in a way that Miéville calls cross-hatching, so that in any street one side of the road may be in one country and the other side in the other, one house may be in one country and its neighbour in the next. The border is unmarked but highly visible. From infancy the people of the two cities are taught to spot tell-tale clues that may be as permanent as style of architecture or as transient as colour of clothing. And having seen these differences, they ‘unsee’ them. ‘Unseeing’ is the heart of this extraordinary mélange, it is what keeps the two cities apart, it is the mental border that is more important and more real than any physical line on the ground. If you are in Beszel, you do not see Ul Qoma; if you are walking down a cross-hatched street it may be crowded with citizens of Ul Qoma but you are in Beszel and for you the street is deserted; if a fatal accident or a bloody crime occurs right beside you but across this imaginary border, you do not see it. Without ‘unseeing’, this is just a busy, complex, Eastern European city; with ‘unseeing’ it is two completely separate cities.
The first words of the novel – ‘I could not see the street or much of the estate’ – appears no more than a description of a dirty, cluttered, disordered public housing area where our narrator, Tyador Borlu, encounters the corpse that starts the story. It is only as the novel progresses that we start to understand the implications of that precise, slightly awkward wording. And that which is unseen is, of course, vital to the story, because this particular corpse appears to have been murdered in Ul Qoma and then brought across the border and dumped in Beszel, an extraordinary transgression of something thoroughly ingrained in every citizen of the two cities.
Inspector Borlu, of course, is what we have come to expect of our detectives these days: a soiled saint, flawed, weary, but ploddingly true to an unstated morality that sees him pursue his enquiries come what may. He owes a debt to the corpse, though no-one, he least of all, could say what that debt might be. And so neither official disapproval nor transgression of his own deepest held beliefs, can prevent him pursuing the case to a conclusion. As is often the case with crime fiction, the actual revelation is relatively unimportant, the criminal matters less than the process of solving the crime. Crime fiction is an inherently conservative form, crime is a disorder in the moral universe and the detection puts the world right. Miéville is an inherently anti-conservative writer, his Bas Lag novels present a world in which change to the natural order is essential. There is, therefore, a disconnect between writer and form in this work, which may be why the most purely detective fiction aspects of the novel never felt entirely convinced or convincing to me. But the upset to the natural order that is crime also allows an upset to the natural order to ripple through the rest of the novel, the process of exploring the crime becomes a process of exploring how and why the world is disrupted. So the sooner we forget that this is about solving a crime, and start seeing it as a way of exploring a wrong in the order of the world, the better. Which is why I could not now remember who committed the murder no matter what, and have no interest in going back to the book to discover that fact, it is in a very fundamental sense irrelevant.
What matters is that the crime concerns the border between Beszel and Ul Qoma, and the further the investigation progresses the more the fact and nature of the border comes into question. The only way that Borlu can pursue the moral quest that he has taken on is to disrupt the political and psychological order that he has never previously questioned, to challenge the integrity of the border. He can do right only by doing wrong, but that means we must confront and challenge the borders we imagine into existence all around us. In doing that, Borlu learns not to unsee, but to see (and so becomes, therefore, truly a detective); he talks across the border with colleagues who should not be aware of him, he looks where he should not look, he cuts into the soul of what makes Beszel and Ul Qoma what they are.
To do that, of course, is to damage the body politic; but the body politic has a defense mechanism: Breach. When we first hear of Breach it seems almost supernatural, something between the nazgul and the men in black who swoop down with extraordinary powers on anyone who permeates the barrier, even in ignorance. But as we progress we discover that Breach is really little more than an understaffed bureaucracy. What is interesting about them is what they represent, and it is what makes the border between Beszel and Ul Qoma truly heterotopic. Because if the border is what is not seen from Beszel and what is not seen from Ul Qoma, then the border is an indefinitely expandable space. Breach is a third place that exists, literally, within the interstices of the two cities. And it is that invention that makes The City And The City, for me, one of the most exciting novels of the year.