As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrász, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-Strász at all, and that I should not have seen her.
Here is Miéville’s story of the split cities, Bes el and Ul Qoma, more than just twin cities, they exist in the same place, they share a topology and the equivalent areas in the other city are known as topolganger area, confused? Well don’t be, from an early age children in these cities are brought up not to see the people or places in the other city and if by chance they should, they learn to Unseen them!
In Bes ￼ el it was a quiet area, but the streets were crowded with those elsewhere. I unsaw them, but it took time to pick past them all.
So in this back ground, Miéville has crafted a detective story, not quite “The Bridge” or The Tunnel”, But you get the drift. The crime, a murder discovered in Bes el, and being handled by Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Bes ￼ el Extreme Crime Squad and which will eventually lead him to work with his counterpart from Ul Qoma, Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt, and by the way, is Dhatt a goody or a baddy?
Miéville’s story is set in the present day with the cities being seen as somewhat backward to the rest of the world, and travel abroad is rare for the inhabitants, Borlú’s partner, Corwi asks him:
So you were in Berlin. Do you speak German then?’ ‘I used to,’ I said. ‘Ein bisschen.’ ‘Why were you there?’ ‘I was young. It was a conference. ‘Policing Split Cities.’ They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Bes ￼ el and Ul Qoma.’
Visits from the outside world are also complex as the visitors are required to attend an induction course:
After a two-week or however-long-it-was course, no one thought visitors would have metabolised the deep prediscursive instinct for our borders that Bes ￼ and Ul Qomans have, to have picked up real rudiments of unseeing. But we did insist that they acted as if they had. We, and the authorities of Ul Qoma, expected strict overt decorum, interacting with, and indeed obviously noticing, our crosshatched neighbouring city-state not at all.
So this is the first layer of the mystery, but then comes the specifics of the two cities, first of all the policing of the strict separation, carried out by a third set of police, not belonging to either of the two cities and known as “Breach”, an all powerful force that do not seem to be accountable to anyone. The second part of the mystery, pretty logically is that if each city could not see the inhabitants of the other city, could a third secret city exist whereby both cities could not see them or would unsee them? Are the rumours of this third city, Orciny, just a folk tale?
Well in order to obtain the answers to these and many other questions you may need to read the book or if you wish to see how someone else has imagined all of this this story has been dramatised by the BBC Trailer of the series
First published in English as ‘The City & The City’ by Random House in 2010