“He said, you’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found, but because it costs too much not to write it.”
REVIEW / / THIS CENSUS-TAKER, CHINA MIÉVILLE
Among my many disgraceful bookish habits, I hoard books by authors I’ve never read. Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen –lauded and loved cornerstones of contemporary fiction, so I know I should read them. They’re bound to be good. And I know I’ll get to Ursula le Guin’s Hainish Cycle one day, so I should have them all on hand at once for when I’m ready, right? China Miéville is been another of those authors for me – I have had The City & The City and Kraken sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, and so, when I saw Miéville’s Hugo-nominated novella, This Census-Taker in a discount store, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile. But it didn’t stay there for long. In my bid to read as many Hugo nominees as I can before the prize is announced, I tossed the slim, 140 page book into my beach-bag for a midweek getaway.
When we arrived at the beach, we had a few, blissful hours of sunshine before the weather turned. Dark skies heavy with rainclouds, a cutting wind that all but swept our feet from under us as we climbed the path to the lighthouse, the grim weather and craggy cliff-sides echoing the bleak, gothic atmosphere of Miéville’s novel. I read it nestled under blankets, in coffee shops, curled on the couch and illuminated by the thin, grey whispers of sunlight that broke through the rain.
So much of this story is built around its atmosphere, which evokes the bleak, Scottish island of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a bridge-town that could be lifted from the pages of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, tempred by an undercurrent of Lovecraftian terror not quite visible on the surface but lurking in the shadows of the novel’s dark palette. For a novel so slender, it was paced at a crawl, with each page drenched in mystery and secrets, keeping answers just out of reach. How Miéville managed to construct such an intricate and probing story in so short a space is a mystery in itself. It begins with the Boy, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, who runs down the mountain to the town below with the breathless accusation, “My mother killed my father!”. The rest of the novel leads readers through his unreliable memory as the Boy tries to gain a sense of what he actually saw – was it his father killing his mother, or did he witness something else entirely? He is returned to his father, from whom he tries unsuccessfully to escape, until he is visited by a mysterious Census-Taker, who has come to find the truth in his story. In the Boy’s telling of his story, he shifts between past-present-future and memories, occupying different points of view as he distances or draws himself further from the story. An instruction from the Census-Taker as he teaches the Boy to write his book alludes to this aspect of the story’s construction: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.” The reader is alerted to the construction of the story, a story-within-a-story, and its part in a much bigger picture that we don’t see. Miéville gives us exposition only in snatches, making it difficult to pin the story to any particular time or place. The Boy’s orphan friend Drobe gives readers the closest thing to a history of their world, brief and in passing, as he mentions the wars that have left the villages in ruins, the machinery destroyed, and sent the census-takers into the world to take count of foreigners. Focalised on the Boy’s perceptions of his own childhood terror, we are privy only to what he shows us, and larger aspects of the story are wholly ignored, raising more questions than answers. There are secrets hidden in this book – the Boy alludes to them, as his line-manager tells him, “you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. Even so. You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words, too; in their letters, in the ordering on the lines, the arrangements and rhythms.”
This Census-Taker has so many things I love in a novel: an ambiguous and unreliable narrator, experimental language and structure, a gothic, fairy-tale-like setting, and an eerie, nascent darkness at its core. It begs a second read. Maybe then will some of its secrets be uncovered.