Two visions of the city

Hilary Plum
July 7, 2012
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1. The City and the City by China Miéville. (Be advised: though I would not, some might think this description a tiny bit of a spoiler.) Two distinct city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma, occupy the same geographic location, their shared space—parks, streets, buildings, branches on trees—profoundly divided. A person may only ever legally be present in one city at a time: the city is, it seems, a thought process, a national and cultural idea & performance, a psychic space transcending physical location. Occupants of the two cities walk down streets that may be located “grosstopically” (the novel’s word) in both (that is: the same street!), but residents of Besźel see and live only (in) Besźel, and residents of Ul Qoma see and live only (in) Ul Qoma. People move around one another “unseeing” and “unknowing” the foreigner, the foreign place, the foreign presence, though it is is in fact immediately there. To cross the invisible borders, to interact with a resident of the foreign city, even to see that which should, in your city, not be there, is not there, is a violation known as “breach,” and which calls down an enforcement apparatus named Breach upon one. Several wars have been fought between the two city-states; ultra-nationalist and unificationist groups exist in each. Through this elaborate apparatus Miéville offers a beautifully rich meditation on what constructs a city, of what our identities and shared spaces may be made, and what real violence these ideas of place and citizenship, resident and foreigner, may lead to. (The novel is also, at the same time, a superb noirish detective story, I should add.) A passage below illustrates and explains the conceit fairly straightforwardly—but note the wink of that sentence “This is what foreigners rarely understand”:

If someone needed to go to a house physically next door to their own but in the neighbouring city, it was in a different road in an unfriendly power. That is what foreigners rarely understand. A Besź dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach.

But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Besźel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home.

Miéville discusses the novel, and whether or not it should be called “fantastical,” in this interview at the BLDGBLOG. Among his many thoughts on writing & cities:

There’s a certain type of ingenuous everyday inhabiting of a city, which is very pre-theoretical for something like psychogeography, but it brings its own insights, particularly when it doesn’t come naturally or when it goes wrong.

There’s a lovely phrase that I think Algernon Blackwood used to describe someone’s bewilderment: he describes him as being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city. It’s a completely everyday, quotidian thing, and he might walk past it ten times, but he doesn’t—he can’t—recognize it.

2. Renee Gladman’s Ravicka books, which so far include Event Factory and The Ravickians (see the review in KRO here). These novels are set in a city-state called Ravicka, the first narrated by a “linguist-traveler,” thus a foreigner, and the second by a “Great Ravickian Novelist” journeying through the city. (Of note that both Mieville’s and Gladman’s imagined city-states are in or reminiscent of Eastern Europe?) Event Factory considers what it can be to be somewhere else, a foreigner, living elsewhere and in translation. Even in the first few pages, Simon, a resident of Ravicka, makes this clear to the narrator:

Outside the main entrance of the hotel stood a pole bearing a faded blue sheet of paper. It was impossible to read from where I stood but it looked interesting. Or the sky around it did. Simon drew up close behind me, “That flyer there?” he asked, intuiting. “To what does it refer?” I wanted to know. “Ah,” Mrs. Savoy intercepted. “She is new here. And portentous too.” “But don’t dream of it,” Simon warned. “It belongs to the city.”

Throughout the novel the narrator struggles to communicate, language being a matter not only of speech but of the entire body’s expression and experience (an idea Mieville explores at well: there are gestures particular to Beszel and to Ul Qoma, and to learn to move without them is to be unidentifiable, even unseeable). The narrator laments: “If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now. In Ravicka, I was barely urban.” At some point with a companion, Dar, she journeys to the old city, “I was told,” she says,

its architecture gave one a medieval feeling. I did not have nostalgia for that particular moment in human history; it was the idea of being inswept by time (as held by place) that possessed me. I wanted to experience the muscularity of the present diminishing in me as it was replaced by a past I never could have known myself.

Then, the strangeness of the journey—just one of many wonderful such moments in Ravicka:

Crossing into the old city took the better part of the day when you were as hungry as we were, which was not a nutritional hunger but rather something deeply emotional. The iron of the bridge becoming stone, becoming ancient and rough as we moved along it, without having altered our course, but the world around us changing. “Eat before you leave,” was more like “forget where you have been,” because it was impossible to hold this crossing in your mind. The contemporary city did not align with this old one, which, in its preserved state, made a mess of our eyes. How could it just sit there, seven hundred years old? We clamored with our bodies to remain upright: Dar with her eyebrows, me with my pelvis, pointing at the sand-colored stone surrounding us.

In an interview at BOMBLOG (in which she describes “the city” as “neighboring pockets of differently distorted spaces”), Gladman talks about “city novels”:

As far as traditions or influences go, the emptied-out city of Delany’s Dhalgren was a portal into Ravicka. But, aesthetically, these books are more aligned with novels like Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit, Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Gail Scott’s Heroine and My Paris, Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City—city novels or novels of walking. But not stories that happen to take place in cities, rather stories where “city” is an idea toward which the author or characters reach, a kind of reflective space that leads to questions about subjectivity or time. I love these questions regardless of the atmosphere in which they’re formulated, but inside urban space, alongside buildings, traffic, transport, the encroaching crowd, the desolate part of the city, they take on dimension. I can move “the problem of the person” around as though it were a thing. Also, as a writer of the English sentence, I am very conscious of the assertion of subjectivity. You can’t get very far in the sentence without having to make a big gesture of identity. “I,” “The man,” “She”—these solids inside which a certainty is assumed to exist. I like to think of moving through the sentence (as writer or reader) as moving through a kind of terrain. The sentence is at once a map of where we have gone and where we wish to go. You can see how dropping a city over this “map” might allow one to work on a figurative level. Your question about progression can become a character itself.

Gladman’s bio at Dorothy, a publishing project states that she’s at work on a “critical essay on the sentence and the city,” which one anticipates happily.

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