Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Three: “Wine Land”
This part of Iron Council returns the reader to Cutter, Judah, and the others. This part is a continuation of the quest to find the Iron Council (the physical entity in the novel). This part is pretty good, but also frustrating.
Personally, I’m not buying Iron Council. I get that it is one of the few successful instances of defiance at New Crobuzon’s authority that is in the public imagination (as no one seems to remember Isaac and Derkhan’s fundamental role in ending the Plague of Nightmares). I also get that Iron Council has become metaphor, myth. A myth of socialist (or collectivist) success against the destructive capitalism of New Crobuzon, a myth and reality that New Crobuzon wants to destroy. But Iron Council as paramount image is too thick, to jammed into the consciousness of the reader.
My issue with this part is: what is New Crobuzon after in this section, prosecuting the war with Tesh or tracking down and destroying Iron Council? Judah, who honestly is obsessed with Iron Council, seems to think that all rails lead to Iron Council. But, I think it is equally likely that the Militia units encountered in this section are dedicated to hurting Tesh.
As stated in the text, New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh itself yet. But that does not mean that New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh’s economy. And that is why New Crobuzon is attacking the Galaggi wineherders (the Wine Land of the title). The wine of Galaggi (produced in one imaginative assed way) passes through Tesh markets to get to other markets (including New Crobuzon). And Tesh, as far as the reader knows, is not doing much about it.
During my first reading, I had assumed that Tesh and New Crobuzon were stalemated. Both sides not having a clear advantage. But now, I’m thinking that New Crobuzon is at the advantage, on the offensive, winning the war. Why? New Crobuzon is stated to have an outpost near Tesh, Tesh’s economic interests are threatened, and there is no mention of the Grain Spiral (the equivalent of Galaggi for New Crobuzon) being attacked by Tesh. The Militia is closer to Tesh itself, and New Crobuzon nor its near interests have come under attack. That is to change, but that is a topic for another time.
Speaking of the war, I had mentioned that I saw the Boer War as an inspiration, and I still see that. The Militia’s treatment of civilians and those not directly linked to Tesh or her war aims is just horrific. People are being massacred for the sheer hell of it. Even the cute bug people! But the description of necklaces of ears brings to mind (as an American) the Vietnam War. However, I think that the Boer War is more likely to have been on Mieville’s mind.
Moving away from the War, I do want to talk about Cutter and Quarbin. Starting with Quarbin.
Quarbin is a Tesh monk, a devote of the Hidden. As a price of devotion Quarbin has lost the knowledge of gender. The image of her/ his genitals are obscured to him/ her. This is a really fascinating aspect of the character. Gradually, Quarbin begins to loose the self she/ he has developed. First gender, then, to find Iron Council, language. Language is that which binds an individual to the community, to the nation. In loosing the language of Tesh, Quarbin no longer is Teshi. She or he is without nation, without place. And I think that Iron Council offers a chance for a new community as well as (as Cutter thinks) a way to die, to fade away. I also think that Quarbin does this to purposely break any loyalty for Tesh. Tesh forsakes the monastery to New Crobuzon, so Tesh can go to hell. Later on, I will have a problem with this.
Cutter is my favorite character in the novel (save for Spiral Jacobs). He is so very human and well characterized. His presence in the novel is conditional. Had things been different, he might not be involved. Hell, he may have a completely different politics than the Cutter of the novel. Indeed, this is where Mieville shines. As with Bellis, Cutter’s character is interesting, not for his opposition to New Crobuzon’s government, but for who the character is. Mind you, I may be biased as Cutter is a gay man.
The reason that Cutter comes to find Judah is because Cutter is in love with Judah. The relationship is fraught with class. For Judah, sex and love are not important. Indeed, Cutter is starved for sex with him, and when they do have sex, it seems to be perfunctory and cajoled.The relationship seems to be as much, if not more, about education and patrician friendship as it is about love and sex. They are not in an exclusive relationship, Judah is bisexual and Cutter has had several lovers. Including one of the wineherders.
Now, what fascinates me about Cutter is the story of the Militiaman. Had things been different, had Cutter and the nameless man met each other again (likely before Judah) would Cutter have the same politics? It is hard to tell. But given what is known about Cutter’s relationship with Judah, the passion and frustration/ rage, I wonder if Cutter might be better off with the other man.
This brings into question homosexuality in New Crobuzon. Like in Victorian London, homosexuality is criminalized (at least for humans). It is never quite explained why, but likely to be a religious prohibition. The gay subculture of New Crobuzon is very similar to that of Victorian London. There are the cultured aesthetes, those like Oscar Wilde, and there are the working men, those more like Cutter himself. Cutter prefers men similar to him in one night stands, but Judah is so alien, so different, that Cutter fell in love, hard. I also find Elsie and Pomeroy’s reactions to be well done. A traditionalist Marxist take on homosexuality is historically displayed. For the Caucus, as with early socialists, homosexuality is a “social ill” created by the capitalist corruption of New Crobuzon. This is, of course, bullshit, and Cutter refuses to be apologetic about who he is. And that is why I like him so much.
Damn, this is a long post. Next time: the long interlude of The Perpetual Train.