China Miéville has said that he wants to write a book in every genre. If the brilliant The City and the City is his detective novel, and October (the latest addition to my TBR,incidentally) his contribution to the history shelves, then what is This Census-Taker? A novella of only 140 pages obviously, but is it post-apocalytic realism, futuristic fable, or perhaps even a horror movie …
,,, because it is very visual even if it is really hard to pin down.
It starts with a young boy running down a mountainside screaming that his mother has murdered his father, or perhaps his father has murdered his mother. Either way the child is deeply traumatised and as the history of his childhood unfolds, we can understand why. It turns out that his mother has disappeared and the boy suspects his father of having bludgeoned her to death and disposed of her body in a hole in the mountainside, as he does the corpses of the animals he kills during periodic apoplectic rages. So when the child is returned to his father, the sense of foreboding is palpable, even if there is no evidence of murder or even of physical maltreatment.
Time passes living “uphill”, in isolation with this maniacal parent, the boy biding his time until he can mount another escape bid. The second time he seeks help from the waifs and strays of the “downhill” town, a run-down/partially destroyed (?) place where resources are scarce. This attempt to flee also fails. It’s not until a census- taker knocks on the door that flight becomes a distinct possibility.
But who is this census-taker and where does he come from? Why does he take the boy’s tale seriously, when the locals did not? What does he find when he descends the mountain-hole to corroborate that story?
I’m not sure answers are actually provided in the text, although there’s sufficient information to interpret (rightly or wrongly). Normally this would infuriate me, but here it adds to the overall strangeness of a tale, told at times with such precision, at others deliberately cloaked in the mists of vagueness. In any event, the arrival of the census-taker precipitates the denouement, resulting in our boy becoming a census-taker in his own right: in fact, this census-taker of the title and narrator of his own history even though he doesn’t remember specifics – such as his age at the time of his mother’s disappearance. He also tells his story in third-person, suggesting the need for psychological distance even when years removed from events.
Miéville seamlessly employs multiple techniques (helpfully explained by Francis Spufford here). The result is a compelling yet puzzling novella, requiring a second, and maybe even a third read for me to get a proper handle on it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have raced through it in one sitting!