Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

I like to think I'm a thoughtful reader.  Not perfect, of course -- who is? -- but good at working out metaphors and allegories and fictional schemas of all kinds. If I can see that there's a shape moving under the surface of a book, I can usually make a decent guess at what kind of leviathan lurks down there. (This may not need to be said, but authors generally want to be understood: some things may be obscure or subtext, but they do expect that a lot of readers will figure them out nonetheless.)

There is something lurking behind China Mieville's short 2016 novel This Census-Taker. I would swear to that on whatever is worth swearing on. But I can't for the life of me quite figure out what that thing is.

So whatever I say about this book is at least half-wrong -- know that up front. Census-Taker is fabulistic, the story of a deliberately unnamed Boy in a clearly potent landscape. And I'm not going to be able to explain the implications of that landscape, or of the actions of the characters in this story. All I can do is tell you, if you decide to read This Census-Taker, to pay close attention and think about what everything might mean. You could be better at this than I am.

In an unnamed country, a decade or so after an unnamed war, a nine-year-old boy runs down the steep slope from his isolated house to the small town nestled around a bridge over a river between two equally sharp peaks. He says his father has killed his mother -- or perhaps the other way around. He is comforted, taken in, and preparations are quickly made to investigate.

Then the father appears. The mother is not dead, he insists: the boy heard an argument, their final breakup. The mother has left forever, gone away from this town where she grew up (but left once, admittedly), and will never be seen again. But she is definitely not dead, he insists again. Not at all, though he has no proof of this.

The boy is handed over to the father with apologies. The two return to that isolated house, where the father is even more demanding and cold than before, as if the boy has betrayed him. And the father kills animals, now and then -- quickly, and perhaps under a compulsion. The boy thinks the father has killed other people, but never sees it happen. We see this all, interspersed with memories of the time when the mother was still with them, in the way a boy's memories can be mixed and jumbled.

Many years later, the boy is a functionary of a larger political entity. The functionary is telling us this story of the boy's childhood -- well, we think the two are the same person, and they probably are. But This Census-Taker is twisty enough that you'll want to put a pin in that assumption, to mark it. (You may need many such pins before you're done reading.) One of the things our narrator tells us is how another functionary -- now his boss, or the boss of the person telling the story, if that makes a difference -- came to that isolated house, and what happened there.

Does it matter that the father is a foreigner, perhaps a refugee from that war in the past? There's no solid indication that he was a soldier, but it's not impossible. My essential problem in trying to encompass This Census-Taker is trying to figure out what is impossible. And that list is not long.

Mieville's voice is confident and controlling: he tells this story precisely the way he wants to, doling out moments and sentences that glisten like jewels -- but jewels just far enough away that their outlines are less than crystalline. I don't doubt that this is exactly the story he wanted it to be. And perhaps he intended this uneasy confusion, too.

I do recommend reading This Census-Taker: Mieville is one of our best writers, and his prose is a joy to grapple with, even if that grappling feels like a knife-fight in the dark for much of this book. Bring your A-game when you read This Census-Taker; that's my primary advice. You'll need all your wits about you for this one; I was clearly missing a few.

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