Friday 28 January 2011

A palimpsest of evolving interpretation

Palimpsest (from the Oxford English Dictionary online):

a. A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another; a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing.

b. In extended use: a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record.

I know most people don't require these definitions, but I love the OED - the writers behind it make everything sound so ridiculously elegant and fascinating. I posted these definitions almost entirely for my own pleasure, yes. (Do you love dictionaries, too? I will sometimes page through one, or the OED online, for hours just being delighted by the strange lexical weirdnesses I come across. Given the way he plays with, and invents, words I suspect China Mieville has spent similar time with dictionaries in his day.)

But about the novel...
Mieville's The City & The City is a novel whose subject is the palimpsest of history, cultural memory, identity, and politics; these interleaved subjects are explored through a generic palimpsest that includes fantasy, science fiction, murder mystery - subset noir with elements of police procedural, and political intrigue - all woven together by a narrative voice that seamlessly alternates between the straightforward revelation of events and the theoretical interpretation of those events within the strange context in which they occur. This is a novel about a fictional archaeology and it is itself an archaeology of textual creation and meaning.

The two cities of the title are Beszel and Ul Qoma, two cities existing alongside one another and sometimes within each other's boundaries. The boundaries are physical, cultural, linguistic, psychological - where streets or parks or buildings exist in both cities simultaneously, citizens engage in a life or death ritual of unseeing the other. To walk from an Ul Qoma street into its Beszel counterpart, or vice versa; to acknowledge that one is seeing a denizen of the other city while standing in one's own; in some cases, to simply behave as though one is in the other city, can bring about swift retaliation from the mysterious organization known as Breach. To breach the boundaries of the cities is to get oneself disappeared forever.

This is the context. The story is the mystery in which Besz detective Tyador Borlu investigates the discovery of a murder victim in his city - a young PhD student who turns out to have been working in Ul Qoma. This investigation, of course, turns out to be much more than it initially appears to be (no plot spoilers here, friends) and Borlu's archaeological adventures lead him through the generic and historical layers that comprise the palimpsest of the plot and the book itself.

What I really liked about this novel is that while it is extremely clever, and Mieville constantly upsets readerly expectations by adding layers of meaning and misdirection both through Borlu's continuing discoveries and his own generic manipulation, it never swerves from being first and foremost a good read. This is a tricky balance which I've seen many other PhDs turned novelists fail in embarrassingly spectacular fashion, and so Mieville's successful tightrope walking is a very welcome surprise. And my husband recently read The Scar and loved, loved, loved it so it seems The City & The City wasn't simply a happy accident.

Best of all: Mieville writes good fantasy completely devoid of any of the elements of swords and sorcery fantasy. I'm always looking for good fantasy that has nothing to do with swords and sorcery; yes, I am asking for recommendations, and yes, I have already read (and loved, although I was also terrified by) the fantastic insanity of John Crowley's Little, Big. (A little terrifying is okay, by the way, if the book is excellent.)


J.G. said...

Uh, no, I very much appreciated the definition. This is one of those words I misremember, as it has somehow been filed next to "dirigible" in my brain and I keep thinking they are related. So, thanks to you and the OEd for setting me straight!

Sounds like a cool book, too. :-)

Heidenkind said...

I've been seeing China Mieville everywhere lately, it seems like. Maybe it's a sign? ;)

Danielle said...

People have suggested to me Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when I mention my fascination with Little, Big. I still haven't read Susanna Clarke's book, but it does seem to have that fantastical element combined with history instead of swords.

Stefanie said...

I really must get around to reading Mieville! Have you ever seen the website Word wide Words? If not, you must go there, you will love it and there is a weekly email newsletter.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how I wish I had hit upon the word palimpset to describe this novel! It's perfect. This was one novel that really stunned me. Mieville did say he was inspired by M.John Harrison's 'Viriconium' which I have yet to read. I'm trying to rack my brain thinking of fantasy novels without sword & sorcery but as I'm partial to them it's a little difficult.

Bookphilia said...

chasingbawa: I got the title of this post from the book itself actually - I'm not certain I would have come up with palimpsest without Mieville's help. :)