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Historical Context

By Maaike Spiekerman

The City and the City was published in 2009, and is set in Europe of that time, though its exact location is unknown. Some key events of 2008 and early 2009 included the adoption of the euro by Cyprus and Malta, the most intense Israeli airstrike on Palestine since 2005 and operation “Cast Lead”, the blockade of aid for Cyclone Nargis, riots ahead of the Beijing Olympics, war between Georgia and Russia, the election of Barack Obama, and the publishing of anti-Islam film Fitna, among others. They are only some of the events which show parallels in the “boundaries” as shown in The City and the City. In some cases, boundaries were blurred, as was the case with Malta, Cyprus, and arguably in the election of the first non-white president of the US. However, others strengthened existing boundaries between groups, and further encouraged “unseeing,” as it is termed by Mieville. Beijing wanted the world to “unsee” the tension with Tibet, and reiterates its boundaries with it through its treatment of the protest; the Israeli airstrikes once again affirmed the boundary between Israelis and Palestinians. “Fitna” reiterated that according to some politicians there is no reconciling Islam and Europe, that it is a definitive boundary. It encouraged people to unsee similarities, as happens in The City and the City, and instead see the ultimate other. It extrapolated a stereotype to cover an entire population, “unseeing” everything else, setting up the “us” and “them” as boundaries necessary to prevent chaos. Whether or not these influenced Mieville's writing, they highlight the relevance of the novel to the politics of its day.

The City and the City concerns two cities built to intertwine on top of the ruins of another. According to the main character, Tyador Borlú, Beszel was built on the “bones” of this ancient city between 1000 to 700 years prior to when the story begins. He assumes Ul Qoma is built around the same time. However, much seems uncertain about what this ancient city was, and even more about when and how the cities came to intertwine. He describes the bones as “Romanesque,” but gives them no more detail than that. He says “the Romanesque remains predate Beszel, we think. We built Beszel on their bones, perhaps.” (Mieville, 51). The exact history is uncertain. Perhaps this is because of the split: each side only has access to uncovering half of the truth, leading to great gaps and therefore great uncertainty. Perhaps it is also because of the animosity between the two cities: one version of this history, such as the ruins predating Beszel, has been passed down from official sources, but experience calls it into question. However, out of fear of breaching, this questioning is done silently.

This manifests further as we are told more about the history. Borlú describes Beszel's dark ages as being very dark: it was a port city known for harbouring pirates. He is, however, not sure if Ul Qoma was around at that time: if it was being built and had not quite met Beszel, or if there really was one city beforehand that then schismed, as the activists maintain. He blames it on “not being a student of the Cleavage” (Mieville, 51), but admits that even if he was, he probably would not know. It gives the strong impression that there is information being withheld, whether on purpose or through political stubbornness, intent on keeping the two cities as separate as possible. The cities have been built “over” something else: what that something else is, we don't know. Like many (social) boundaries, the roots are unknown. What it covers is equally unknown: whether it is a third state, whether they have always intermingled, and whether the boundary has always existed is often just as obscure as why it is there. Have the boundaries which exist in our modern world, and the layers of our societies, always existed the way they have? More likely is that, like Beszel and Ul Qoma, they have been built over something else: a major historical event that caused the clash of civilisations, or the division of a civilisation, and turned them into uncrossable boundaries. Like a palimpsest (a piece of parchment written on, erased and then rewritten), the marks of what preceded are still there. Despite the letters being indecipherable, they have marked the parchment and will affect the pen strokes of the next scribe, whose pen will be led by the groves left behind even if he might not notice it. The reader, given this very vague and uncertain account of Beszel's and Ul Qoma's mutual history and ancestor, is led to question: why are these cities even separate? Is there a reason, or is it a social construct?

The book does hint at the possibility of the two cities being more similar than they like to believe. It does this in the description of the languages, Besz and Illitan. Besz has thirty-four letters, corresponding to an Aromanian script used in countries like Greece and Croatia. It reads left to right, and its letters look like the Cyrillic script, used in Russia. Illitan, on the other hand, uses Roman script, and is described as a mix of Arabic and Sanskrit. Its original script has been lost, a move Borlú compares to the romanization of Turkish. He says “Illitan bears no resemblance to Besz.” thus setting it up as being as different and unconnected as the two cities. However, he has to admit that the grammar structure, “phonemes, and even base sounds” are very similar, suggesting the languages do have something in common and possible do have a common ancestor. Looking at other languages spoken around the region, many can be traced back to a single origin: Proto-indoeuropean. Recently, there has been much debate within Europe about the potential of using English within the European Parliament and to allow the use of English in French universities, both heavily opposed by France as well as other southern European nations because it would promote Anglo-saxon economic perspectives and cause loss of some aspects of culture. If language is so associated with culture, Borlú's identifying of commonalities and common roots might be a further gesture to the similarities of the two cities. The emphasis on language having a potential cultural similarity might underscore another point regarding Ul Qoma and Beszel: that they are perhaps not as irreconcilable as they seem.

Language Family Tree


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Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Del Rey Ballantine, 2009. Print.

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