Prompted by a colleague I have just finished reading China Miéville’s 2009 novel, The City and the City. The novel is a crime thriller set in the cities of Beszel and Ul Quoma – two cities occupying the same territory. The boundary between the cities is maintained by each population ‘unseeing’ the other, even in those places where the cities physically overlap in ‘cross-hatched’ zones, streets and squares. Any transgression of the boundary is rigorously policed both by each city’s own police forces and, more brutally, by the mysterious force known only as Breach.
I won’t decribe the plot in any more detail than that, because it’s a great book that will be of interest to anyone interested in the peculiarity of boundary-lines and borders and in the elaborate lengths we go to to protect and preserve them. When I first started the book I was concerned that the conceit of the divided city would be too laboured to be sustainable, but this proved not to be the case. This is partly, of course, a testament to Miéville’s excellent story-telling, but is also because the further into the book you get, you realise how many cities (and other places) are scarily close to Beszel/Ul Quoma. One only has to think of Jerusalem, Belfast, Londonderry, Cyprus, Beirut, etc., to find cities and states that have to manage comparable levels of division. Even beyond these formally divided places, how many of our major cities maintain less explicitly policed but nevertheless highly fragmented and stratified populations?
Beyond that, however, Miéville captures something very compelling about the ambiguous spatial nature of these very intense boundary zones. What makes them possible to maintain in practice – and despite their demarcation and militarization – are the ‘spaces’ opened up by the ambiguous spatiality of the border-as-line. Here embodied in the form of Breach, in normal life such spaces take the form of the ‘real’ xenospaces – spaces of exclusion, exception, excision, secrecy, privilege, etc. – through which our lives are variously ‘located’, protected and/or contained. The figure of the boundary line – which seems so easily legible, but is both contradictory and complex in practice – plays a vital role in the constitution of these discursively constituted spaces. The line that, by definition, has no magnitude, paradoxically opens up endless possibilities for ‘real’ spatial fictions.