• Bricks & Words #6: ‘The City and the City'

    China Miéville’s deservedly acclaimed novel is a detective thriller set in Besźel, a fictional city-state located on the borders of eastern Europe and Turkey. The investigations of the lead character, Inspector Borlú, eventually require him to travel to another city-state, neighbouring Ul Qoma to try to solve a murder. This is not as straightforward as it might seem, however, since both cities actually co-exist in the same physical space and are separated by culture rather than geography. Moreover, citizens of each are required from childhood to ‘unsee’ every aspect of whichever city they do not live in, on pain of Breach, an unspecified but feared regulatory mechanism. For Borlú, the required shift in his perspective opens him to threats from all sides.

    Apart from its success in deploying the familiar tropes of the genre that it nominally belongs to, Miéville’s book is notable for the credible and brilliantly thought-through portrayal of its two strange cities. Clothing, dialect, food and customs are all mentioned, of course, yet it is the built or perhaps constructed environment in its widest sense that plays the biggest role. Thus there are references to the differing architectural vernaculars of Besźel and Ul Qoman but also descriptions of signage and telephone receivers, computer operating systems and shops, street names and police sirens. Miéville also constructs histories, political movements, treaties and governance structures for his city-states, and for the intriguing ‘third state’ of Breach. Finally, a hidden past that seems to underpin (quite literally) all of these is slowly revealed, thanks to the clever conceit of an archaeological dig that suggests a shared origin and which plays an increasingly important part in the story. All of this is achieved with great subtlety, arising – like the best travel writing – organically from Borlú’s observations and interactions. A must-have for anyone with an interest in how cities are made and encountered.

    ‘The City and the City' by China Miéville (Macmillan, 2009)


Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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