[I read this 2009 novel in five sections, writing about them in detail after each section. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
28th February 2021
Chapters 1-5, the first half of Part 1—Besźel
OK, not quite the first half of this section, but we seem to have reached a turning-point in a tricky murder investigation. And maybe we’ve reached a turning-point in the way the reader might perceive the two cities—or is it three?—which exist somehow alongside each other. Neither city is willing to admit that the other really does exist, but to an extent that is somehow enshrined in law. Every citizen in Besźel, the city our narrator has grown up in, has had to learn the technique of ‘unseeing,’ an Orwellian piece of mental gymnastics which means that the inhabitants must pretend to see nothing and nobody in the other city. We don’t even know the name of the other city at first, or that they speak a different language. Let’s face it, for a chapter or more we don’t even know why the inspector has to do that unseeing thing when he sees someone on the main street near the murder scene…
…which, aside from that detail, could not seem more conventional. I’m pretty sure, having read a little about China Miéville—his real name, it seems—that he likes to unsettle the reader, make things not quite how they might first appear. Whatever you think of the word trope, it’s become one in police thrillers that the body of an attractive woman is discovered at the start, the worldly police detective and his subordinates hazard a few guesses we know will probably be wrong… and so on. She’s probably a sex worker. Or she probably isn’t, given the healthy-looking condition of her undyed hair. It’s a woman police constable who mentions this, and the inspector, for this and other reasons—she got to know the area during her probationary period—decides she’d be an asset in his investigation.
There’s something equally generic about the deprived Eastern European urban mis-en-scene. In fact, it’s only the names that feel Eastern European, along with the fact that we don’t know where we are in relation to anywhere we might recognise. Our narrator, Inspector Borlú, is super-educated, seemingly as comfortable in English and French as he is in ‘Besź,’ so that erudite word-play and a comfortable connection to all kinds of culture seem the norm for him. It’s another alienation or metafiction thing—I don’t believe for a moment that Miéville is expecting us to take this narrative at face value. We know he’s playing games. I’m even wondering if we’re supposed to recognise the ‘Is the victim a prostitute?’ dead-end as the one that kick-starts Spiral, the French Engrenages that first aired in 2005….
What do we know after five chapters? Borlú is getting nowhere for something like the first two. It doesn’t occur to him until he gets a phone call from the other city that the woman might have crossed over. At first, we don’t know why he is so freaked by a call from ‘Ul Qoma,’ why he starts to scribble notes on the call, why he writes—Borlú’s italics, or Miéville’s—shit, shit, shit all over them. He knows he won’t sleep, so he buys himself two bottles of wine. By the end of the night, he’s not even trying to avoid looking at the trains passing on the local line he’s supposed to pretend does not exist for him. If passengers see him staring, so what?
This is to let us know that he’s in ultra-deep water. Or shit, as he puts it. Maps exist of the overlapping spaces occupied by the two cities, but we only see one of these in the ramshackle HQ of a dissident group. It becomes ever clearer—unless Miéville is holding something back—that the cities don’t occupy literally the same space, like the different Oxfords in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000). This is more like a much messier, far more intermeshed Berlin. And to go with the Orwellian unseeing technique the citizens of Besźel have to learn from childhood, there’s an apparently all-seeing entity referred to as the Breach. We guess this is a system of surveillance to ensure that there are no breaches of the interdict on any level, from actual communication down to not looking away quickly enough. The Stasi springs to mind, and even Borlú wants nothing to do with them, or it.
The day after the call, without saying anything to raise her suspicions, he tells his assistant Corwi that he’s had a thought…. Could she make some (perfectly legal) phone inquiries in Ul Qoma? Which she does. And, when she calls him back later, she’s impressed how fruitful his hunch has proven to be. She’s had some luck with the man in charge of that dissident group I mentioned, a ‘unif’ or unificationist, highly disapproved-of by the authorities but not illegal in their city. And, with the necessary show of reluctance—Borlú lets us know how tedious he finds the act—the man tells them everything he knows. He recognises the photo of the dead woman, has pictures of his own, and tells them she did some research in their little library two, maybe three years back. She had only done this for a couple of weeks, until the man himself sent her packing. She definitely had her own agenda, apparently to do with the hidden history of how the cities had come to be in their current state, and nothing to do with the group’s hope for unification.
And that’s just about it. She was not, as she had told the unification group, Byela Mar—helpfully translated for us by Borlú as a punning take on a phrase that goes, ‘only the bait-fish’—but an American called Mahalia Geary, based in the other city. She had been chic, attractive, interesting, and trouble. And now she’s dead. What was she doing—and the unification man is convinced she was involved in something he has no idea of—that has led not only to her murder but to her being dumped in a shitty district in the city that feels like the poor relation because it isn’t becoming more gentrified every year?
Borlú is interested, but he will be very happy to hand over the investigation to somebody who has the authority to do far more than he can. He wants Breach to take over, because the woman’s body was dumped in Besźel, although she had been living for some time in the other city. The stolen van that was used to take it has been found, and the Besź owner—who had not reported the theft, for no reason he can come up with beyond not getting around to doing it—has a cast-iron alibi. However the woman ended up in Besźel, this is clearly a classic case for Breach….
Meanwhile, what do I think of the two-city conceit? Not sure yet. Let’s see where Miéville can take his ambitious mix of prejudice, class division, and a suspicion of any kind of otherness. And how is he going to keep up his grittily realistic presentation of a demonstrably fantastical premise without it all seeming like a game?
Chapters 6-11, the second half of Part 1
It very quickly becomes very complicated. And Miéville is happy to bring out another trope—this novel is so full of them I’m sure he’s expecting us to tick them off as they come down the line—that of the ordinary copper faced with an investigation that goes right to the top. We don’t know the top of what exactly, but he’s nudging us in the direction of the right-wing nationalist party, murdering a woman who was getting too close to something they didn’t want anybody to know about. By the end of Part 1, Borlú hasn’t been able to get Breach to take on the case, despite having thought that doing so would be no more than a formality. The perpetrators had not, in fact, been guilty of any breach when they drove the body from one city to another, because the van they used had the right documents for the driver to pass through the only checkpoint without question. But in order to prove this, somebody has made sure the police are sent the right VHS tape, and only somebody with a lot of influence could do such a thing. And in order for them to have stolen a van with the right documents in the first place, they would need access to police files. What’s going on?
Well, politics for a start. In Chapter 6, Borlú has to explain to the councils of both cities, meeting in the same big room in the only building complex where this is ever done. It isn’t so much in a so-called cross-hatched area, one of those that doesn’t belong exclusively to either city, but somehow has a special shared status. We later find out that it is built over and around the checkpoint that has to be gone through in order to travel legally from one city to the other. It’s a source of the system’s most bizarre piece of bureaucratic nonsense: if you walk across an ordinary road from one city to the other, Breach will be down on you immediately. If you have genuine business on that side of the street, you have to travel, possibly miles, to go through the checkpoint. I hope you’re paying attention, because…
…Mahalia’s parents, Americans who take the first available flight (not easy in itself, as we are to believe the other city is blockaded by the USA), decide it’s a stupid rule and ignore it. Or the father does, so he can talk to whoever he likes, and he doesn’t stand a chance. He isn’t summarily executed, but he’s still unconscious from the drug that’s been administered to him as he is bundled on to the next plane out with his wife. Nobody knows what the long-term effects of the drug will be. Nobody knows anything about Breach, a fact the Americans find it impossible to deal with. The reader doesn’t have a much easier time, but Miéville wouldn’t have his Kafkaesque mise-en-scene without it. Or Orwellian. Or Terry Gilliamesque—we could be in his Brazil, complete with those hooded, black-clad special agents who whisk the main character away, no questions asked….
As I mentioned, the meeting to have the case handed over to Breach does not provide the rubber stamp that Borlú had hoped for. It takes some days for this decision to come through and, while waiting, he continues to investigate the case—and begins to find it more and more convoluted. By the time Breach’s non-participation decision becomes known, he’s practically hooked. This, despite his own dread of how on earth he is going to handle an investigation in both cities, and despite some choice words from Corwi, whose language is always colourful…. He’s been able to speak to Mahalia’s supervisor in Ul Qoma, a professor of archaeology who had been impressed by her but—alert readers are definitely filing this away for later—her doctoral thesis isn’t as full or detailed as might be expected from someone who works so hard.
Prompted by something the unification guy had said, Borlú asks if Mahalia had been researching Orciny, the third city which, according to some old stories, is somehow present in the interstices between the two we know about. The professor tells him she had dropped it as soon as it was made clear to her that Orciny has no foundation in fact. The man who had written the only book about it had since repudiated it. Nobody at the university, or anywhere else in academia, ever talks about it seriously now. It’s folklore, that’s all—and it’s also something else for the reader to file away for later. We don’t know if Borlú is having the same thought, that Mahalia didn’t drop the idea of Orciny at all and her investigation of it has led to her murder. Her parents had told him that she definitely had enemies, and her father was wanting to see somebody whose address he says he found on the Internet. Now Borlú has the address, because Mahalia’s mother had given it to him before flying off, and it’s a real address.
But to get back to the archaeology, and Orciny. The professor’s thing, she tells Borlú, is all about hands-on work centred on the dig she’s involved in. Mahalia was involved in it too, and… so is Miéville. What this means is that the archaeology is as convoluted as everything else about the cities. Reliable dating, despite the vertical layers that are the staple of this kind of archaeology, is really difficult. Newer technologies and artefacts seem to lie beneath older, and the mix of styles makes it hard to know which of the overlapping cultures is responsible for whatever they find. I’m paraphrasing what the professor tells Borlú but, basically, it’s just about the most extraordinarily rich site imaginable. And… Mahalia seemed to be as interested in it as the professor—especially, if I’m getting this right, in the suggestion that there might be evidence of an Ur-culture. There’s been talk elsewhere in the novel about an Ur-language despite the two seeming as divergent as two European languages can be. So why not an Ur-culture? Maybe, God forbid, the two cities aren’t as historically distinct as the nationalists on both sides like to think.
Whatever. David Bowden, the professor who wrote the discredited book on Orciny, is still alive and still sends some time each year in Ul Qoma. And, as Borlú gets ready to spend as much time as necessary in that city—his supervisor hopes for two weeks, but we’ll see—he has been able to buy a beaten-up old copy of the book online. It seems he did have the same thought as the reader about Mahalia’s supposed disillusionment with the idea of the third city, no doubt wondering if it’s what led to her death. But there’s a very long way to go yet and, in true police-thriller style, Miéville is probably getting us to guess the obvious in order for us to be proved wrong. He’s writing in this genre, so he’s going to want to do it properly, whatever else he might be doing. Which might be something else entirely.
A couple of things before we follow Borlú through the checkpoint. One is to do with the impressively elaborate care Miéville takes to make the story of the stolen van as plausible as possible. What are the chances, Borlú asks at one point, that someone should just happen to steal a van with those useful ‘visa’ papers stupidly left in the glove compartment? Answer: quite high if you have access to data about who has been fined for doing just that in the past, and might well still be making the same mistake. You’d need to be the sort of high-up—maybe connected to the right-wing politician who felt it necessary to make a rather pointless fuss at Borlú’s Breach application meeting—who could also have somebody trawl through hours of VHS traffic records to prove the van really did go through the checkpoint. (And has Borlú brought down these right-wingers on to his own back? He had visited some nationalists, just to see what they might know about Mahalia, and a powerful lawyer had arrived to warn him off. The VHS tape appeared at police HQ shortly afterwards.)
And… what is this novel about, really? Is what I called that mix of prejudice, class division, and a suspicion of otherness in this fantastical world a metaphor of something more universal? And what about that sense of being watched, and of not being in control of one’s own life? Is Miéville commenting on the growing surveillance culture of CCTV and the lack of online privacy that has only become worse in the years since 2009?
He might be. Or maybe—and this isn’t necessarily a different thing—he simply wants to create a claustrophobic world in which a sense of impending threat is all-pervading.
Chapters 12-20, most of Part 2—Ul Qoma
The sense of threat is much worse now, in fact, which is no more than I was expecting. Borlú, in Ul Qoma but often ‘grosstopically’ close to the familiar sights of his own city, is only too aware of how he is a stranger here. He’s having to do his job having been stripped of everything he would usually rely on. This isn’t his territory, and the arbitrary-seeming foreignness of everything only adds to the feeling. He hasn’t even been allowed to keep his gun…. And all the time, he’s having to do a kind of double-doublethink, unseeing citizens on the other side of a cross-hatched road who are the same nationality as he is. It’s what Breach expects, and it feels almost neurotic in its control-freakery. And it’s not just me who thinks so. Borlú’s lifelong behaviour—based on beliefs drummed into all citizens, as I said, from childhood—is being challenged. Questioning that other bit of doublethink, the one that stops anybody asking questions about what the hell Breach thinks it’s doing, is a part of a new mindset that he’s is being asked to engage with. He really, really doesn’t want to do that, but evidence seems to be mounting that he might have to.
Basically, Borlú is having to face up to something that is blindingly obvious to an outsider. Such as, for instance, anyone reading this. A thousand-year-old way of thinking—it might be older, but there are notorious gaps in the historical record concerning when and how a split happened—is, quite demonstrably, completely unfit for any kind of purpose. I mentioned the reader just now because that’s who is having be taken along with this absurdity if the novel is to work. It’s been Miéville’s job all along to pull the wool over our eyes about it. Some of it is through constant reiterations, in the words of the highly articulate narrator, of how a culture has learnt to accept it. There’s the lexicon of terms, from unseeing to various takes on topology and topography—grosstopical meaning physically close but totally separated, albeit only by unquestioned convention. Nobody would put up with it, we might think, and analogies like Berlin don’t work. The point is, these two cities don’t need walls because the system is policed by—by what, exactly? The reader doesn’t know, and neither do the citizens. It’s just a given, an inconvenient fact of life that Breach can do what it likes and nobody in a millennium has ever countermanded it.
Yeh, sure. Unless Breach really consists of the two cities’ real lawmakers and rulers. It’s the only way it could possibly work and, even then, it couldn’t really, not for over a thousand years. But hey, it’s a novel, and if Miéville can keep the momentum up, we’ll buy it. We know it’s a game… but, within the alternative universe of the novel, the one in which separate cities like these are a possibility, it’s a conclusion that Mahalia Geary’s investigations seem to have been leading to. It’s Yolanda Rodriguez, a friend of hers, who confirms it when Borlú asks—Orciny is real, located in ill-defined spaces which each city believes belongs to the other, or neither, and it’s where the real masters hide themselves. He’s a lot more dumbfounded by it than the reader is. All along, he’s having to be secretive with Dhatt, his co-investigator in Ul Qoma, about where his own inquiries are leading because a) he daren’t trust anybody and b) it’s so utterly beyond belief. Yolanda herself is in hiding, and Borlú has tracked her down without Dhatt’s knowledge or permission. This, we are being invited to believe, is the strength of the hold the unseen power behind Breach has over people.
And Miéville really does keep the momentum up. Within the Byzantine structure of the two cities’ parallel bureaucracies, he has Borlú doing the kind of things that cops like him do in murder thrillers. He’s good at his usual job in Besźel, as we saw in Part 1, going the extra mile when a more cynical copper would sit back. Being in Ul Qoma gives him the chance, or gives Miéville the chance to give him the chance, to go off-piste. Dhatt has made it as clear as he can, without being a dick about it, that this is not his, Borlú’s, patch. But as early as the first night our man has wandered close enough to the archaeological site for the local cops to stop him—his clothes are clearly those of a visitor—and, after they’ve checked his status with their HQ, to escort him back to his hotel.
He and Dhatt work together after that, mainly, and they seem to overcome some of their mutual distrust. Is Borlú right to trust a man who is so resistant to the idea that Orciny, far from being a folk-tale or hoax, might actually be masking a terrible truth? But I’m jumping the gun, because their investigations together are fairly standard at first. They go and see the Ul Qoma’s own unificationists, even less organised than the ones Borlú had visited in Besźel. Already, Borlú has his own agenda—he suspects that one of them is the man who made that late-night call all those days ago that led him to make his own calls to Ul Qoma. They’re very cagey while Dhatt is in the room, but one of them calls Borlú a day or two later, terrified. He’s in a car and on his way out of the city and the country, because whatever it is that Mahalia uncovered—she was using the unificationists here in the same way as the ones in Besźel—is putting other lives in danger.
Central to it all is the book which, if Borlú’s suspicions are correct, the secret powers have assiduously rendered marginal since its publication decades before. The two investigators go to visit its author, David Bowden, whose career has been blighted by what he now regards (or says he regards) as the naïve enthusiasm of his younger self. Nobody takes him seriously now, however much he repudiates his former conclusions. Dhatt hasn’t told Borlú that Bowden had been burgled two or three weeks earlier, perhaps because nothing was stolen. At least, we start to think as things become murkier, nothing was stolen that he’s admitting to.
Murkier. First, Yolanda has finally—Dhatt seems reluctant to do it—been declared as missing. She had been Mahalia’s best friend, and David Bowden is her supervisor. He says he took her on because nobody else would—his position in the university is very low-status—and Borlú is much more interested than Dhatt that she might have key information about Mahalia. Who are those enemies that unificationists on both sides have told him about? Luckily—this really is a police procedural when Miéville wants it to be—our man comes to realise that a security guard at the dig seems to be much more interested in Mahalia than any past connection would account for. We don’t realise he’s put two and two together until he tricks the man into leading him to the person who would really want to know about Mahalia, Yolanda. He’d had an anonymous note delivered via one of the Ul Qoma street urchins—I’m not making this up—telling him to come at once, and his ruse works. He follows him all the way to a run-down housing estate, and he muses on how the uber-prosperous Ul Qoma has these too.
He has to pretend to use surprise and his own strength to push the man through the door she’s eventually half-opened for him. She’s terrified, and it isn’t easy for him to get her to trust hm, even after a long conversation. But what other choice has she? He promises her, and we believe him because he’s that kind of guy, that he will escort her through the checkpoint and into Besźel. Only there will he be able to pull the right strings and call in favours to get her an exit visa and home to safety in the West. However… it’s going to be an uphill struggle to get Dhatt on his side after not answering his calls all day. When he does call in, from a call-box, it’s to arrange a meeting outside, in a very public spot. He watches Dhatt for nearly an hour before he finally joins him. He’s reached that stage where he daren’t trust anybody. But, at the point I’ve reached, Dhatt is willing to help. He’ll get some papers prepared, identifying her as a police officer. He says. And our man can do nothing but hope that, finally, they really are working together.
And this isn’t all. David Bowden had almost become the victim of a parcel bomb, sent from Besźel to the mailroom at the dig site, and very cleverly set up to avoid suspicion. It’s the same guard as is helping Yolanda who discovers it. It just hadn’t felt right, he says, and… what possible motive might he have for telling anything other than the truth? It depends on just how intricate the workings of this plot might be. Whatever, now Bowden’s gone missing too, and Borlú is having to do clever things to make contact with him. He’s enlisting Corwi’s help—he’s been making careful calls to her every day—and he’ll need to have Dhatt’s wife’s phone so that Bowden can call a safe number….
Chapters 21-22, to the end of Part 2
I’d got it wrong, thinking that I was only half-way through Part 2. In fact, after the point I’d reached, all that remains in Part 2 is for Borlú to fail to get either Yolanda or David Bowden through the checkpoint, and to pursue the gunman who had prevented it—he’d killed Yolanda and wounded Dhatt—into Besźel. Where, dressed in Ul Qoma police clothes and therefore having to give the appearance of unseeing everything Besź including the gunman, he keeps him at the edge of his vision until he enters a non-cross-hatched ‘total’ Besź street. Where the man turns, gives a little smile at the pursuer who can do nothing to him now—and is astonished to be shot by the Ul Qoma police. Breach, unsurprisingly, come down on Borlú like a ton of bricks. He’s unconscious almost before he knows what’s happening.
These two chapters, in their different ways, are nightmarish. The preparations for smuggling out Yolanda—and, if he’s prepared to be near the checkpoint in time, Bowden—are down to both Borlú and Dhatt working in full co-operation. Had I realised that Part 2 was coming to its close, and that Part 3 is subtitled Breach, I would have been even more convinced that Dhatt was about to do the dirty on all of them. But, unless there’s a highly unlikely double-bluff going on—Dhatt receives a shot in his shoulder while trying to shield Yolanda—in fact, he is doing all he can for Borlú. He makes rueful comments, not really jokes after the first ones, about how his career will be in shreds after all this. He’s had to forge papers, find uniforms for Yolanda, Borlú and Bowden, go as off-piste as Borlú has since the moment he arrived there.
The nightmare in Chapter 21 is the tension. Yolanda is whimpering with nerves long before the crucial moment when they hope to be nodded through, then a man seems to be approaching them threateningly from behind them in the queue. In fact, it’s Bowden—but, for some unfathomable reason, he has a handgun with him, which he’s taken out of his pocket. This is when shots are fired from the Besźel side—and Breach does not get involved. No breach is taking place, apparently, and the reader wonders if this can possibly be right….
Whatever, Borlú decides to leave Dhatt cradling Yolanda’s body and jump into the Ul Qoma police-car they’d been in. It’s the only way he will ever be able to follow the gunman, and the pursuit is like the kind of nightmare you have during a fever. He must jump through the usual hoops of unseeing and whatever, must remember that he is in role as an Ul Qoman officer, must keep this man in his sights. And… doesn’t he know him from somewhere? He’s convinced of it long before the fatal moment, but Breach’s knockout drug does its job long before he can work it out.
As I said, Part 3 is subtitled Breach, and so is the single short Coda chapter that follows it. I have absolutely no idea where Miéville intends to go with this now. I don’t even know if he intends to have his narrator survive…. And one last thing. Do we only have Dhatt’s word for it that he was wounded? Or could he have been in on it all along, an accessory to the gunman?
Chapters 23-28, Part 3—Breach, and Chapter 29, Coda—Breach
What’s going on, we might wonder when we see two sections both set in Breach. Might we guess? If, not far into Part 3, we start to have an inkling that our man will soon be making his new home there, in the non-city that really, really isn’t Orciny, we’d be right. For a chapter or two, inside the faceless wherever-it-is Borlú finds himself in, it could be the KGB HQ in one of those historical novels based in Stalin’s Soviet Union. But it isn’t at all. For a few pages, Borlú might be K in Kafka’s The Trial, as any questions he asks are simply not answered. But Borlú knows why he’s there and, almost before we’re accustomed to his new situation, there’s a big turnaround. Breach needs him, because… why? Because they haven’t a clue what’s going on, and they can see that he knows what he’s doing.
Really, like any conventional detective hero, this is Borlú’s selling-point. He always works everything out in the end—and he has the additional power of being able to convince the most unlikely people to be on his side to help him pull the right strings. He won’t be alone in his new life because his Breach minder has become his mentor and friend—and there isn’t a dry eye in the house when he, Borlú, makes his half-seen, half-unseen farewells to his previous partners Corwi and Dhatt. He’s Breach now, so they’ll never be even as close as that again, ever.
Don’t get me wrong. I found these final chapters the most enjoyable in the whole book, because Miéville can get on with having his hero unpack all the red herrings strewn around the place, and bring the villains to justice. That’s what is supposed to happen in classic whodunits, which is what this has been all along. You thought Mahalia was murdered by mysterious people who wield more power than anybody can imagine, as she discovers what they are up to? Nope. She’s murdered by a man who thought he had found a way to stop being the laughing-stock of academia by faking an alternative history, a project he can finance by (spit) selling artefacts to someone willing to pay. Yes, it’s David Bowden, because what Mahalia had really come to realise was that Orciny really never was any more than a folk-tale. He couldn’t have her, or Yolanda—who never knew anything, in fact—spill the beans and spoil his reinvention of himself. He had to get rid of them.
I’m not at all disappointed by this outcome. Bowden’s crime might have been personal, but it had been a part of a bigger conspiracy—there really is a politician involved, just not the rather unimpressive one Borlú had been wondering about—and this is what makes the unravelling of it so tricky. It’s also what lies behind the way the reader had been fooled into thinking that this whole thing is bigger than it really is. It isn’t an existential crisis concerning the nature of the two cities’ millennium-long relationship. It’s about Bowden, in cahoots with an ambitious politician, and a foreign company interested in artefacts that might take scientific research in new directions. Like the real-life Antikythera mechanism, cited by somebody as once having been beyond our understanding, maybe these things really do use scientific methodologies we no longer know about. (How does Borlú put it as Boden points a Precursor weapon at him? ‘It was some verdigrised metal object, age-gnarled and ugly. It was clicking.’)
The set-up is that Bowden, having encouraged Mahalia to believe that Orciny is real, persuaded her to smuggle specific artefacts out of the dig. Borlú, in one of his not infrequent moments of intuition, demonstrates to Ashil how she did it while confirming for himself that his hunch is right. She thinks she’s working for a higher historical/political purpose, but really—as Borlú finally comes to understand—Bowden has tricked her. Unfortunately for Bowden, she’s clever enough to work out that the scholars who had discredited his thesis, the ones she’d disagreed with until now, were right all along. How does Borlú confirm this? With that seemingly infallible knack he has of knowing where to lay his hands, literally, on the physical evidence. With the stolen artefacts, it was dummies left in the bottom of a cabinet he feels around in. With Mahalia’s change of heart—I’m not making this up—it’s the palimpsest (Borlú’s word) of careful notes she made in the margins of her copy of Bowden’s book. And where does he find that? Uncatalogued on a shelf in the university library, with his Breach minder only able to look on in admiration. OK, even now he’s much too stony-faced to show a sign of it, but we know.
I don’t know if it’s Borlú’s next bit of super-intuition but, soon enough, he asks his minder, now giving his name as Ashil, how he is able to find out whatever he wants. Almost unlimited access to almost any databases and private accounts, he tells him. And Borlú’s lightbulb pings on again—somebody out there will have noticed that highly specific searches are being carried out. Like, after he has checked the dates when Mahalia could have made a drop on the cross-hatched ground near the dig, and he has matched who was present at a specific trade event taking place on those evenings—it’s the only event that matches after he’s got Ashil to check the data—he is led to the CEO of a specific foreign tech company investing in the otherwise IT-backward Besźel. I hope you’re keeping up.
It’s at this moment when the almost imperceptible stirrings of unease that Ashil confirms to Borlú that he, too, has noticed in both cities suddenly comes to a head. A busload of refugees, all unschooled in the niceties of breach-avoidance, has had an accident and the passengers are spreading out over both cities. Meanwhile the unifs on both sides, whipped up by the politician and whoever he has working with him into believing this is a real revolution, are out marching and indulging in all kinds of civil disobedience. Every so-called ‘avatar’ in Breach is called on to do their Men in Black act and arrest, crisis-manage and cover up. Borlú and Ashil, working together now just as Borlú had with Dhatt in Ul Qoma, agree that this event could not be a coincidence. Something’s going on with the tech company, and they must have understood that the data-trawl must have been a Breach investigation. The disturbance is orchestrated to get Breach out of the way.
For what? Borlú guesses, rightly, that it’s an escape from the city, only possible when all borders are officially closed but when nothing can be policed normally. They race to the company HQ—and isn’t that a helicopter on its way to the same place? (I wonder if anybody’s ever done a count of all the helicopter-on-the-roof scenes there are in action movies.) And the upshot is… the foreign CEO, after gleefully telling Borlú and Ashil they can do nothing about it, flies off. He’s taking nobody with him because Ashil has shot the politician, who was himself threatening to shoot Borlú. Ashil is wounded, one bullet having got past his body armour….
Are we nearly there yet? We are, in fact, but there are a couple of loose ends. One is Bowden, using his intimate and hard-won knowledge of the topography of the two cities to make his way out of both of them. Corwi can’t arrest him—she’s been at the end of a phone line since before the end of Part 2—and nor can Dhatt, who had alerted Borlú to what was happening. Both police officers have to keep to their own cities and, having gone through the checkpoint quite legally, Bowden is doing nothing illegal. So, when Borlú arrives with Ashil’s own Breach badge—it really is like Will Smith’s initiation in Men in Black, and he really is learning to negotiate his Breach way through both cities now—he can’t arrest him either. Bowden could even shoot Borlú—he has that ancient weapon—and the two officers could do nothing. His body would rot. Luckily, the ever-persuasive Borlú is able to reason with him—where on earth is he going to go?—and Bowden comes quietly. The end.
Except… Borlú has learnt to love Big Breacher. The ‘coda’ has Ashil explaining that nobody goes through what Borlú has gone through and returned to live an ordinary life. It’s clear it had been the intention all along that Breach, having difficulties coping with some of the pressures it’s under now, needs new blood like him. Borlú, quite early on in his dealings with them, had confronted Ashil with how scared they are, and he was right. He’s always right. And, after those not-quite unacknowledged goodbyes to his old muckers—and hand-delivered letters to the two lovers in Besźel I never got around to mentioning—he’s a gamekeeper now.