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Besźel, Ul Qoma, and the Alterity of City Space

By Kate Moloney

The fractured nature of cities and the alterity - the 'othering' - of space are common themes in China Miéville’s works. Yet The City and the City, marks a departure from his former fictional places created around this theme, from the fantastical city-state of New Crobuzon in the Bas Lag novels and the alternative London underground in Kraken and Un Lun Dun, in that Besźel and Ul Qoma are depicted as cities which are separate from each other in a literal rather than entirely social manner. The cities are, according to the author, an “exaggeration of the logic of borders”, and neologisms such as “grosstopical” and “topolganger” (a noun created from the fusion of “topography” and “doppelganger”) are used to describe the bizarre relationship between Besźel and Ul Qoma – two cities which occupy one spatial area but which are constructed and operate distinctly in their own rights, the same spaces able to be one place in Besźel and another place in Ul Qoma simultaneously: “In Besźel [it] is an unremarkable shopping street in the Old Town… and in Ul Qoma its topolganger is the famous Ul Maidin Avenue” (159). The two cities exist as socially and politically separate, linked only by the immigration border of Copula Hall and the overarching feared judiciary power of the “alien” Breach.

The Besźel/Ul Qoma divide is constructed and perpetuated psychologically by both sides of the divide, the boundaries and topolganger alter spaces created not only by the governments of the cities but actively maintained by the citizens of both. “Everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma” (370) subconsciously works to preserve the distinction by blocking out the ‘other’, using socialised attitudes and training in ‘unseeing’ and ‘unsensing’ taught strictly from an early age, until the act of not ‘breaching’ – the crime of breaking out of the dichotomy of space by becoming completely aware of the ‘other’ city, or else shifting from one to another outside of the designated immigration point – becomes an internalized process in which “everyone in the cities” (372) participates in the ‘unseeing’ of the other.

The novel’s terms for this sublimation of an awareness of either Besźel or Ul Qoma, ‘unseeing’, however, implicitly infers a transitional motion from a state of active observation before the image is internally dismissed as belonging the ‘other’ city. Being in a constant state of almost-breach is a condition of life in both cities, where citizens of each are aware of the other, participating in the “intense learning of clues” (80), indicators such as “styles of clothing” and “ways of walking” which act to prevent direct interaction through the recognition of visual clues that are half-seen but mentally integrated – “[I was] unseeing of course, but I could not fail to be aware of all the familiar places I passed grosstopically” (161). The strict defining lines of what is ‘your’ city and what is not develops a definite sense of spatial identity where citizens are defined either by being Besź or Ul Qoman. Borlú asks Bowden near the end of the novel, “Which city are you in?” (362), and this works as an unconscious question running throughout the novel which prefigures any form of interaction between the two cities. Being in either Besźel or Ul Qoma does not only define who people are able to interact with, but also whose existence it is legal for them to acknowledge without invoking Breach.

“Breach” works in multiple ways as a term throughout the novel. It is used not only for the name of the organisation who police the “interstice” and ensure the maintenance of the Besźel/Ul Qoma divide, but also as a “statement of both crime and identity” (286) – “Breach” serving as both the verb meaning ‘to break through’, as well as ‘to breach’ referring to an infraction, the act of not observing a law or rule. However, “breach” in terms of ‘to rise or beak through a surface,’ can be applied to describe Borlú’s movement throughout the novel, shifting from the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma before finally moving into an “extra-city” space, being part of “both the city and the city” (373). The novel is divided into three narrative segments – Besźel, Ul Qoma and Breach – which act as narrative markers categorising Borlú’s spatial transitions through the main spaces within the novel. Borlú’s first person narration opens with a lack of visibility and limited awareness – “I could not see the street” (3) – which define the Besźel/Ul Qoma state, and running parallel within the investigations into the death of Mahalia Geary is the development of his own awareness of the cities and their relationship with each other, through his interactions with the political undergrounds of the “Unificationists” and the nationalist groups of “Besźel First” and the Ul Qoman “Nats” as well as the folklore legend of a third city of Orciny. Borlú’s transgressive almost-illegal attitude to the cities even at the beginning of the novel – “I always wanted to live where I could watch foreign trains” (49) – foreshadows his eventual shift into Breach.

Borlú’s transition into Breach is prefigured by a simultaneous awareness of both cities, not in the fixed standpoints of either Besźel or Ul Qoma, but at the “no man’s land” (158) between the two, Copula Hall. Described as the “point of ingress and egress” (86), the way through which the two cities have access to the alter space of the other, the linguistic term “Copula” is defined as a linking verb, referring not only to its unique role as a connecting space which is “in both cities” and yet is “both or neither” (72), but also its existence as a micro space in its own right, acting as a conduit through which Borlu “[doesn’t] have to unsee the neighbouring city” (277). Borlú’s subsequent “terrible… transgression” (285) and the suddenness of his breach stem from not only his desperation to apprehend Yolanda’s killer, but perhaps also a subconscious recognition that he “can’t come back” from having seen both cities, not as spaces defined by the alterity of their twin, but as “overlapping” parts in which he has always lived in “half the space” (371). By concluding the novel as “Tye, avatar of Breach” (373), and not Tyador Borlú, he shows an acceptance of his inability to return to his former identity as a Besź citizen, while at the same time embracing the possibilities of his new existence within the “interstice” between the two cities.

Miéville, China. The City and the City. London: Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Manaugh, Geoff. “Unsolving the city: an interview with China Miéville.”.BLDGBLOG. 1 March 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.