Archive | 12:16 PM

Book Club Reflection: The City and the City by China Mieville

27 Jun

I’m really getting bad about these Book Club Discussions and getting them up on time. To the lovely people in my group, I apologize. There are just not enough days in the week now that I’ve stopped blogging on Fridays. Well, kind of stopped (as you can see).

We met on June 9th to discuss The City and the City by China Mieville. You can read my review of the book here. This meeting was delayed a month so this will be a shorter discussion as many of us forgot the details. We focused instead on overall themes and characters (which is my favorite, anyway!).

Many of us were not fans of the book. We thought it was hard to get into and some people didn’t understand the concept of the cities at the beginning. I overheard a librarian describing the book to someone before I started it so I went into the book with an advantage not everyone had. We were very curious why the cities had split. Had they started very close to each other and fought for space? (Side note, this reminds me of games such as ‘Slay’ and ‘Civilizations.’) Or were they once one city that divided due to some political issue? We wished there had been a bit more information on this. To a reader, the cultural divide seemed arbitrary and reminded some of us of the divide in Rwanda. There’s a scene in the movie Hotel Rwanda where it is illustrated how little an outsider can see the difference in their cultural groups, even though it seems obvious from the inside. We felt like the Ul Qoma and Beszel divide was similar.

Many of us liked (or at least noticed) that the people in this book had to develop some words that existed only to them because of their living situation. ‘Toppleganger’ was a favorite. This made me think about how every group creates their own words based on need. We all know the example that Eskimos have fifteen words for snow based on the size of the flakes and intensity of the storm; I see this as being along the same line.

The cities themselves play such a large part in the story that they’re characters themselves. Some members of our group argued that they’re bigger characters than the people because the people were a bit under developed much of the time. They dictated the actions Borlu and his counterparts took more than another single character.

One of our discussion questions was about the choice of Borlu as a narrator. Our answer depended on what we thought the novel was about. Some of us thought of it as a mystery novel (myself included) and in that case, yes, Borlu is a good narrator. But some of the group thought the book was a social commentary and in that case, the archeologist, David Bowden, might have been a better choice because he was more attune to the social issues between the two cities. I think it’s safe to say that there was social commentary wrapped into this crime novel and I think Borlu was a logical choice for a narrator because Mieville explored the crime aspect more than the social commentary.

There was a part in the book where Borlu talks about a conference he went to for divided areas and he felt it was an insult for someone to compare the Ul Qoma and Beszel situation with Israel and Palestine. However, it made all of us think of the Israel/Palestine problem! The biggest difference was that Ul Qoma/Beszel was much less violent. The two groups existed besides each other and didn’t seem to be fighting for space like in other situations. We felt that Breach was the main reason the two groups were at peace with each other. It was hard for them to go to war or even be angered by someone in the other city with Breach being so vigilant and watching the people all the time.

China Mieville is an active member of the Socialist party and we wondered if that influenced this work. I’ve seen in my Google searches that some of his other books lend themselves to socialism, but I didn’t see a lot of socialist themes in this book. The economies of the cities were not a focus of the novel, but I don’t remember either of them striking me as socialist. It’s an interesting thing to note, but I don’t see it as influential on this work.

One of our members pointed out the prejudice in the book. I had noticed Borlu’s comparisons of the two cities and that he seemed biased toward his own city, but I didn’t find that unusual. I think people tend to think their cities are better than others. However, once I started thinking about it, it seemed more like a rivalry between two schools than city pride. Borlu thought his city was working harder, had a better future, etc. We wondered how they could form an opinion of Ul Qoma if they didn’t see it. Wasn’t having this opinion an admission of breach? It seemed like it was unusual for people to cross the border the way Borlu did. How would they have formed these opinions? It seemed that they couldn’t completely unsee everything from the way Borlu described life in the city. Maybe having to unsee something makes you think that you’re better than it.

We took unseeing the other city as a metaphor for how we look past things we see in our own cities. For example, when I worked in Washington DC, I’d walk past homeless people like I didn’t see them. Of course I did see them, but I chose not to recognize them. If you’ve never lived in or traveled to a big city before, maybe you think I’m a jerk for saying this, but when I go into Detroit or on my recent trip to Chicago, it was hard to avoid and too numerous to help everyone. It helped me understand that we all unsee one thing or another.

We talked about other things we unsee in our lives. In our own homes, we look past something that’s dirty that we don’t have time to clean, or a chore we’ve been putting off. Outside, we’ll look past litter and maybe ignore abandoned buildings with busted windows. We can try to look past our neighbor’s dead grass or terrible choice of landscaping. At work, we can pretend we don’t see what Sally May has a new skirt that is too short or that Billy Joe has on tennis shoes instead of dress shoes. It’s not our place. Personally, I try to unhear my neighbor’s children throwing a ball against the wall or playing in the foyer until 10 PM. There’s something we all unsee.

This was a great group despite many of us having forgotten a lot of the book. We’ll meet again in August to discuss A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers which I’ve started and so far absolutely love.

Until next time, write on.

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