A Palimpsest of China Miéville's The City & The City
John Bryant

"[A]nd when will all the books that are worth anything stop being illustrated with drawings and appear only with photographs?" Andre Breton, Surrealism and Painting

palimpsest: a manuscript that has been scraped clean of its text so that the paper may be reused.

Besźel and Ul Qoma, the two cities of The City & The City, occupy the same physical space. The citizens of the two city-states must learn to unsee the other city and its people. The inhabitants of the two cities must find their way through areas known as total, alter, and cross hatch. For a citizen of Besźel, total areas are all Besźel. Alter areas are all Ul Qoma and must be completely unseen and avoided. Cross hatch areas are both Besźel and Ul Qoma, and Besźel's citizens must unsee Ul Qoma and its inhabitants while remaining aware of the alter city enough to avoid collisions with the unseen. The secretive Breach preserves and enforces the boundary between the two cities, insuring that what should remain unseen and forgotten stays that way.

The idea of inhabiting one city while ignoring and forgetting all the other cities that surround one is not too far from our everyday life. Motorists race along, unseeing the so called waste land beneath and beside their roads, carefully ignoring the pedestrians who slip between their roads, traversing their own hidden and often feral pathways. A few hundred feet, often less, can separate a gated community from a tramp's pathway and camp-site. The seat of the city and county courthouse, the physical locus of the state's power, is also a gathering place for the homeless and impoverished. The citizens of these two, or perhaps more, cities constantly pass each other by, usually carefully and uneasily unseeing each other. The boundaries between these cities, like the boundaries between Besźel and Ul-Qoma are constantly shifting as one city encroaches on the other thereby creating areas of doubt and uncertainty, places where it is harder to unsee the other city and its citizens.

For much of the twentieth century, American urban planners have attempted to eradicate these cross-hatch zones through the application of strict zoning laws meant to segregate economic and cultural activity. The cross hatch areas, like a persistent mold, can't be stopped. Once the urban planners, architects, and construction crews are finished, once the city has been sliced up into nothing but alter and total, the cross hatch areas reappear.

These photos are illustrations for the novel, or perhaps scenes from a non-existent movie adaptation. The aspect ratio of 16:9 and the choice of black and white are meant to imply a film, one heavily influenced by films such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Third Man, Stalker, and The Trial. The images focus on the cities themselves, especially those areas that are cross hatch, or are just barely total or alter. The locations were chosen as a result of meandering explorations of Tulsa on foot, by bicycle, and by car.