Posts Tagged ‘The City and the City’

Nicole Avril: Les Gens de Misar

June 14, 2021

     After 45 years I’ve returned to one of the strangest novels I know; it was recommended to me all those years ago by one of my students while I was an English language assistant in France. There are echoes of so many other writers and classic novels of the twentieth century that I still can’t decide whether it has an originality of its own or is merely derivative.

A Frenchman, a university lecturer, accepts a posting to a country that has deliberately cut itself off completely from the world for the past thirty years. It seems that partly he is fleeing an unsuccessful love affair, and wants to be away from all that’s familiar. He has studied the language and history of the desert nation and its capital city, Misar, though.

Misar is a rigidly organised and conformist society, applying its laws, which everyone knows, very strictly. He accepts and goes along with this. Great poverty as well as great privilege is evident in a stratified class system; he is part of the privileged elite. He observes and reports, giving the clear impression of being out of place; what he sees seems to jar but he can do nothing, and even to ask questions is not acceptable. The weirdness of the city was reminiscent of China Mieville’s excellent thriller The City and The City. I felt distinct echoes of Kafka here. At this stage he is a passive entity: when the sister of his university colleague appears in his bed offering her sexual services he accepts and performs; this becomes a regular occurrence and a real relationship – of a kind – develops between them. But all is never what is seems.

Gradually he learns more of the way the state functions; law is enforced by ritual public stranglings, and it transpires that the current appointed executioner is the older sister of his lover. This uneasy and unnerving implication with the forces of death reminded me of Jill Paton Walsh’s weird Knowledge of Angels, as well as Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre au Noir. And there is a strangle kind of licence permitted in the mysterious public gardens, which again are more than they seem. Here is a world where all is fine as long as you abide by the rules, which everyone knows. Shades of Huxley’s Brave New World, rather than Orwell here, I thought. And yet, our hero seems to be committing thoughtcrime, in wanting information about matters he ought not to be concerning himself with: the dangers of curiosity in a totalitarian state.

Misar regards itself as a haven from the rest of the world which is chaos, and is biding its time, unaware that the rest of the planet has just forgotten about it. Danger rears its head when having watched an execution to which he was invited, it’s made clear he’s now regarded as ‘initiated’ – one of them. And there seem to be people in Misar who are aware of the stasis, entropy even, into which the place has fallen, and hope that the outside may be able to do something to break the cycle when he returns home.

His fascination with the executioner leads him to uncover the secret from which he has been warned away, and the inexorable system into which he has been accepted means that he must die…

It’s an unnerving read, a compulsive read and one which makes a number of allegorical interpretations available at different stages. At the moment, I really can’t decide how original or how good it is. And in another 45 years, it will not matter. I have not discovered an English translation of the novel.

China Mieville: The City and the City

May 11, 2015

9780330534192I really enjoyed this novel when I first read it five years ago. It scrambled my brain then, and a re-read hoping to make things a bit clearer produced the same effect, as well as convincing me at the end that it really is brilliant.

It’s a detective story/ thriller with a science fiction twist to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, for example. Mieville sets the story in a city, recognisably East European or Balkans post 1989, but with a difference: it’s two cities in two different countries, but which in some way overlap in places in time and space, occupying the same spaces whilst alongside each other. And if that isn’t clear, then perhaps you’ll understand why I say it scrambled my brain, and perhaps it will be clearer if you read it… or not. Contact via the interstices must not happen, and such breaches are ruthlessly dealt with.

At one level you find political allegories linking to our world and think of Palestine/ Israel, or Croatia/ Serbia perhaps, but only fleetingly. There are also hints that the confusion is the result of some alien presence many centuries ago – reminiscent of the chaos left behind in the Zone in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Then I found myself reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish civilisation seeding planets across the galaxy.

A lone detective investigates a murder which is not what it seems, and involves the spaces between; he has a helpful Watson-type female companion in the first half of the story, but then the roles swap when the investigation takes him to the other country and he must play second fiddle to his detective chaperone from the other national crime squad.

It’s fast-paced, but the extra concepts make the plot more complex and add further twists and complications; out hero eventually ends up in breach of the rules, where he discovers that, even in the spaces in-between, things are not what they seem, and his life is changed for ever as a result. Not all the loose ends are tied up – they rarely are in a novel like this – but the sheer originality of the plot and the ideas blow you away. I’ve written about another of his novels, Embassytown, here, and he’s definitely on my watch list.

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