Reading Between The Lines*: The City & The City
Breach. Take a word already sore with unpleasantly legalistic connotations and make it a noun. Capitalise it, do the same to the verb-form. Then withhold it from the reader, sideways glances and muttered mentions, all of which are themselves only fearful hearsay and hushed conjecture on the nature and powers of something which one character goes so far as refer to as “alien”… Furthermore Breach, for all its byzantine mystery and the fear it evokes, is a lonely constant across the languages of both Besźel and Ul Qoma.
Otherwise they exist in a state of flux, with both Besź and Illitian, as well as their perhaps-shared root and/or precursor tongue, being used relatively interchangeably and peppered with a set of shared English idioms. People’s names in particular are multiply interpreted, overtly presented in manifold forms that proffer the subtle tensions of the singular signified labouring under multiple signifiers, each character themselves but destroyed and recreated as something too familiar to be properly foreign but too foreign to be properly familiar as they cross, legitimately, between a city and its other.
This fragmentation and re-forging of the language continues into the terminology of the twin city-states, the specific vocabulary required to describe the dissonance of their physical entanglement and the simultaneous political and psychic absolute which their separation is supposed to exhibit. As in Embassytown the terminology is born of compounded ideas, rich in gentle wordplay and pun (for the cities of Ul Qoma and Besźel the past is quite literally another country or countries which either cleaved or was cleaved) and offered with a matter-of-factness which emphasises its common usage within the book’s diegetic.
The writing, never slack or uninteresting, is nonetheless reserved, restrained until the main character brings his un-expository first-person comes into contact with those aspects most alien to the reader; a combination of its alterity and uncomfortable mundanity. The key to which, to both, is unseeing; the wilful invisibility granted to anything that, although in the same physical space, is of another state and sovereignty. When one is insile, living between the cities, and the habit of unseeing is no longer needed its sudden absence causes a sickness, referenced almost in-terms to the sympathetically nauseous cinematography of Vertigo (Hitchcock himself gets the nod, his work the wink).
This then, the manner by which two grosstopically intermingled yet separate cities, seeming so impossible a thing that only thinking makes it so and only thinking could make it so, is essential. I mostly got to read The City & The City in dingy stations under weirdly coloured lights that made everything uncanny anyway; the back of your own hand cast in a sickly orange glow is no longer familiar. I finished it in one, in fact, where the weather lent a particular sense of apropos to the occasion.
On my platform the wind was biting, bringing in the lash of prematurely freezing rain whilst it’s opposite sat in a drier gloaming. So I tried to unsee the other side of the station, not a middle-distance blur but an absence which still occluded the world I was allowed to see. I got a headache quite quickly, but I understood what I had known prior to finishing the book. The City & The City’s ending is inevitable, foreshadowed (as it is) or not by the narration, and appropriate to the steeled fragility of Breaching.
*Frankly I’m surprised this terrible not-even-wordplay isn’t more prevalent in commentary about The City & The City. Also I’ve decided to delegate the necessary exposition about the book’s setting and core concept (along with any real intellectual or academic analysis) to a friend’s blog, and the unnecessary-yet-amusing biographical information about the author to this e-curio over which, the site in toto rather than the page I’ve linked to, my aforementioned friend and I slaved (not really).