Archive for the ‘miéville china’ Category

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!


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As I attempt to shorten my TBR during 2011, I will be asking the blogosphere to pick out some reads for me.  From a selection of books that were chosen on blogs in my google reader as the best of 2010, you picked an initial batch of 4.  This is my review of  book 1.


 The City and The City won the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 Hugo Award, and 2010 World Fantasy Award, but more importantly it was a best of 2010 on Chasing Bawa’s blog! 

I don’t read much science fiction, so what was this doing in my TBR?   It has invaded my conscious by means of a drip feed of positive reviews throughout the year.  Curiosity awakened, I purchased the book following Miéville’s television appearance on the panel discussing the 2010 Booker shortlist.  He was such a perceptive and eloquent critic, I had to read some of his fiction.

The opening page of The City and The City places me in familiar territory.  It’s a crime novel, I’m going to love it.  Yet by the end of chapter one the ground has shifted beneath my feet.  I’m in the city of Besźel, which is occupying the same geographical space as the city of Ul Qoma. Some areas of the space are crosshatched (belong to both), other areas are total (belong to just one area).   The two cities have their own buildings, infrastructure and laws and the citizens of each must learn to “unsee” each other. It is illegal to cross from one city to the other.  The penalty for “breaching”   is enforced by a mysterious force known as “Breach”.  People disappear, never to be heard of again.

Children amuse themselves with original games.  Throwing a stone from a street in Besźel through an area of Ul Qoma to land in another street in Besźel .  Technically it’s breach, but no harm is done and Breach turn a blind eye.  However, if a valuable article is placed on a street in Besźel and picked up by someone in Ul Qoma, that is theft and Breach would be all over it like a rash.  Yet when a woman is murdered in Ul Qoma and her body dumped in Besźel, they do not intervene.   Inspector Tyador Borlú faces a difficult case.  How is he going to be able to investigate a murder in a city he’s not even allowed to see?

Having accepted Miéville’s conceit, effectively “unseeing” my own spatial awareness (and I admit it took me a good few chapters to do this), the novel became utterly absorbing.   Clever plotting and movement of the action from Besźel to Ul Qoma in part two and onto Breach in part three ensures thorough acquaintance with all aspects of this new world.   The versatility of the allegory is thought-provoking.  Are Miéville’s fictional cities founded on the experience of cities like Berlin, Belfast, Jerusalem?  Who is complicit is maintaining the status quo?  Or is the allegory to be applied more personally – how easily do we as individuals choose to “unsee” the minority groups in our midst?

All in all, an original,  brilliant and unforgettable piece of fiction. Like many others, I recommend it too!

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