Thursday, October 13, 2011

Into the breach

Never underestimate the power of a good booktalk. Several years ago, a colleague booktalked China Miéville's Un Lun Dun (which I have never gotten around to reading), but I was intrigued enough to know that I wanted to try something from this author someday. The City and The City (or The City and Ytic Eht as the book's cover indicates) is another title I found while browsing the LOS shelves. As it wasn't a monster (another Miéville audiobook clocks in at over 24 hours), plus it appeared to have a detective element, I snagged it. Either I'm getting soft (or the catch-up blogging is affecting my cranky side), but this was another good one.

It's also really complicated. Inspector Tyador Borlü of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to a case of a dead woman found in a waste ground on the outskirts of Besźel (oy! the diacriticals are killing me!). Borlü is your classic loner cop, experienced but a bit of a maverick. Besźel is on the eastern edge of Europe, a rundown and slightly backward place that has the feel of an old Soviet city. Besźel also shares its space -- literally -- with the more sophisticated and vibrant Ul Qoma. The cities exist utterly separately except in areas known as crosshatched. There, they overlap, but if a citizen of Besźel happens to glance and see something going on in Ul Qoma (or vice versa), they must quickly "unsee" it. Unseeing is a skill taught early and practiced without thinking. If they don't unsee, they have "breached" and officers of a deeply feared and shadowy institution, Breach, swoop in and take them away ... forever. No one knows what happens to someone who has been swept up by Breach.

It doesn't take Borlü long to figure out that the murdered woman is somehow involved with an archeological dig in Ul Qoma -- a dig that might provide the existence of a third city, Orciny -- but he is not allowed to make inquiries about anything that happened there. Evidence appears proving that her body was moved from Ul Qoma to Besźel (through a legitimate border crossing), and Borlü applies for permission to continue his investigations in Ul Qoma. There, in classic crime fiction format, he meets his Ul Qoman counterpart (and complete opposite) Qassim Dhatt. They've got to set aside their differences in order to solve the crime.

And that's enough synopsis.

I think what I enjoyed most about this novel, aside from the plunking of a conventional detective story into the off-kilter-making co-existing cities -- was Miéville's complete respect for us as readers. He doesn't waste time elaborately building his worlds -- he spins out the details that we need to know naturally as the plot progresses. He has created a truly frightening entity, Breach, that we know almost as little about at the end of the novel as we do at the beginning. He's also making a sophisticated statement about how 21st century city dwellers live: We "unsee" all the time, ignoring the panhandler as well as a couple having an angry argument in public. We teach our kids to unsee. Yet, I never felt that his message was blatant or heavy-handed ... or even judgmental.

All of my posts lately seem to have ended with variations on "I'll read another" by this author, and this one is no exception. Un Lun Dun (which I think also explores the idea of intimately connected cities?) here I come.

John Lee reads this audiobook. Even though he's quite prolific (105 entries in my library's catalog!), it turns out I've only heard him read once (back in the earliest days of my blog ... forgive me its sloppiness). His experience and talent show in his masterful reading of this very complicated book. He retains a calm control over the novel's bizarre setting, knowing when to step up the pace of the narrative and when to let the emotional parts linger. (Without spoiling [I hope], I was actively disturbed when Borlü finds himself in a place where he doesn't know the rules.)

He gives most of the characters variations on an English accent, but contrasts Borlü's slightly formal manner of speaking with the more relaxed street stylings of Dhatt. When called for, Lee produces authentic American and Canadian inflections. He also sounds natural when voicing women. And, as always with a novel like this -- with its unusual place and character names -- he selects a way to say them and sticks with his pronunciation consistently.
  • BOR-loo
  • BEZH-el
  • Al KOh-ma
  • And last but not least, China (like the country) Mee-A-ville
[A Wikimedia Commons search of "breach" resulted in an image of this sculpture by the Suriname artist Oscar Adogo, Der Doorbraak, or The Breach. The photographer is Clock.]

The City and The City by China Miéville
Narrated by John Lee
Books on Tape, 2009. 10:16

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