Soup of a City
This week the institute where I work has organised a conference called ‘Curating the Afropolitan: New Ethnographies of Johannesburg.’ Its purpose is to bring together scholars, writers, and artists to think and talk about Joburg: its past, present, and many possible futures. I was reminded this morning of how frequently it has been evoked in fiction: from Nadine Gordimer, Can Themba, and Mongane Wally Serote, to Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavić, and Lauren Beukes. Because the city is so new and has been subject to almost constant expansion and re-fashioning, it seems to be particularly attractive to being remade in fiction: writers can remould it according to their own ends, while still retaining something of its ‘Johannesburg-ness.’
My favourite literary description of a city is of a made-up metropolis. In The City and the City (2009), China Miéville traces a murder investigation in Besźel, a city somewhere, presumably, in the Balkans. What complicates Inspector Tyador Borlú’s work – and, indeed, life in Besźel – is that it occupies the same space as another city: Ul Qoma. As Besźel is modelled on the kind of Mittel-European city described by Kafka or Stefan Zweig, then Ul Qoma owes its architecture, culture, and ways of living to Turkey.
Although parts of the cities overlap in ‘crosshatched’ areas, for the most part, the inhabitants of the two cities keep strictly to their side, learning to ‘see’ and to ‘unsee’ Besźel or Ul Qoma during childhood. (Tourists are required to attend classes and pass a test before visiting either city.) When the invisible barriers between the cities are violated, a mysterious force called Breach is invoked to restore order.
Fittingly, the murder investigated by Borlú involves an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma. Instead of revealing the origins of the two cities and their odd connectedness – did they cleave together, or apart? – the academics and students working on the site retrieve a myriad of objects, the purpose and dates of which are unclear. This mirrors in some ways Borlú’s own investigation: the more he digs, the more confused he becomes.
Borlú needs, in other words, to pay attention to the things right in front of him: to the obvious. (Ironically, of course, he’s not allowed to ‘see’ some of them because they’re in Ul Qoma.) It is the very superficial which is allowed to inhabit both the cities openly: rubbish ‘drifts across borders, like fog, rain and smoke.’ Also, urban scavengers like ‘pigeons, mice, wolves, bats live in both cities, are crosshatched animals.’ And food. Or, at least, the traces of food. Borlú visits little Ul Qomatown in Besźel, where Ul Qoman immigrants have settled:
This is where pining Ul Qoman exiles come for their pastries, their sugar-fried peas, their incense. The scents of Besźel and Ul Qomatown are a confusion. The instinct is to unsmell them, to think of them as drift across the boundaries, as disrespectful as rain. (‘Rain and woodsmoke live in both cities,’ the proverb has it. In Ul Quoma they have the same saw, but one of the subjects is ‘fog.’ …) But those smells are in Besźel.
The City and the City is so compelling because it feels familiar: because although the idea of two cities existing on the same space, with their populations having to see and unsee each other, may seem outlandish, there is something recognisable about Besźel and Ul Qoma. I think part of Miéville’s success as a writer of speculative fiction owes something to his training as an anthropologist: he creates worlds which echo the logics of our own.
There are hints of another, real city in Miéville’s invented metropolises: Jerusalem. One of my favourite recipe books is partly written by another former anthropologist: Yotam Ottolenghi’s recent cookbook Jerusalem, which he wrote with his partner Sami Tamimi. The book’s conceit is a simple, but powerful one. Both men were raised in Jerusalem during the 1970s, but Ottolenghi in the Israeli part, and Tamimi in the predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem. They only met after leaving Jerusalem, having had fairly few opportunities to encounter each other there. In Jerusalem, they share the recipes of their city. Or their cities.
Obviously Jerusalem isn’t segregated in the way that Miéville describes in The City and the City, but his evocation of a single space occupied by two groups who need to have as little to do with each other as possible, brings Jerusalem to mind. In Jerusalem, Ottolengi and Tamimi show that it is impossible to disentangle to the various culinary traditions in the city:
in this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence each other constantly so nothing is pure any more. In fact, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants – all bringing food and recipes from four corners of the earth.
I am not trying to suggest, glibly, that a realisation of a common, shared culinary culture will somehow end all conflict. But, rather, that understanding how difference is constructed, and by paying attention to where it breaks down – where it breaches boundaries – is a means of undermining nationalisms’ claims, demands, and justifications.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Interesting choice on Mieville and the idea of sectarianism (is that the correct term here? Or is that just a Belfast way of describing things?) I recently read Divergent and was intrigued by the recurring image of a shared space, similar – perhaps! – to the sense of our modern cities being shared by different cultures whose existences often overlap, but who not always meet?
I really appreciated your reference to Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem in this context.
Thanks for the recommendation – I haven’t read Divergent. I think that’s precisely what Mieville is trying to capture. And glad you like the post! -Sarah
This trend in teenage fiction has been bothering me for a while now, to the point that I made my students learn the word ‘dystopian’ … Your post made me look at it from a different angle. I am wondering if ye olde ‘sectarianism’ might not be a more accurate way to describe this multi-focal perspective, than perhaps ‘racist’ or ‘multi-cultural’?
Oh, and I am not sure about recommending ‘Divergent’ – I read it because my students kept going on about it! But there is something in that teenage-angst scenario of belonging vs. being an outcast that ties in with your observations in terms of a broader (cultural) sense of belonging.
I like your point about how we think about ‘sectarianism’ – about rethinking how we use it. Thank you. I’m going to mull over this for a while. -Sarah
Beautiful and thoughtful piece. Thank you.
Thank you so much xx -Sarah