The City and the City

Somewhere in the Balkans the city of Besźel occupies the same topological space as Ul Qoma.  The two cities are separated by culture, religion, language, taking opposite sides in the cold war and and before that between the Allies and Axis. Citizens of one space unsee, unhear, unreact to all protuberances from the other.  You can reach one from the USA, the other has more links to Canada.  Internet and cell phones work on both sides, but to communicate between the cities, that must go long distance through international exchanges, or perhaps not at all.

The air is shared, but aromas from one side are unsmelled on the other. Objects exist strictly in one or the other place, but as they disintegrate to anonymous detritus, they blow with the wind through both cities.  They say it rains more in Besźel.

I cannot tell if this is some quirk of folded space-time that brings together these specific overlapping fragments of parallel universes separated by an historical quantum event, or instead this is an idiosyncrasy of two populations in a single conurbation reinforced by intense taboos and policed by the feared invisible omniscient Breach.

This is The City and the City by China Mieville which I have listened to as an audiobook.

While listening to this book, I came across this video “to survive, to live – 2019” through twitter.  The writer who introduced me to it now has a blog.  I thought, this is the city and the city.  People live precariously, and isolation during a pandemic leaves them without resource and invisible.  I thought, we are not asked to judge, just to not unsee.

9 responses to “The City and the City

  1. Hi Neil, thanks for this post. It is all to easy to unsee and un hear at the present time. Although in what is considered by some our very conservative Australian government has passed without (obvious) qualm a doubling of the most basic unemployment benefit, the mere increase of which by a few dollars they have fought off for two terms. The PM talks about a “snap back” at the end of the crisis, but many are wondering how much can be unseen after this experience.

  2. I read this book twice and I think of it often as the idea of unseeing , in the context of the book, is just as employed in our own world. And yet I do think, as the book points out, once you have seen, you can’t unsee, you can only ignore.

      • I was thinking of those in the middle road, like those in the investigation who also saw but at the took the road of choosing to ignore and to go back to the former status quo. Obeying in action but in thought? There is still that truth to ignore, I thought, in them. How does a person’s mind do that? It fascinates me. I’m going to have to read the book again. And thanks for the mention of the show. I didn’t know. I’ll look for it.

  3. Excellent observation.
    I feel lucky every day to have food and shelter. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck, and it’s painful to imagine what is happening to a great majority of humanity right now while also trying to keep themselves and their families from falling ill. They are always in crisis even in normal times. (K)

    • I can imagine. I’m unbelievably privileged as a doctor. People are applauding our NHS workers, rightly as we lose colleagues through working with patients. But our salaries are secure, and we don’t live with the daily threat of economic violence.

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