This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 7 May 2016.
Imagine a fairy tale written by Samuel Beckett. Dense, dark, and utterly mesmerising, This Census-Taker is in some ways typical of China Miéville. A leading light of the New Weird (think H.P. Lovecraft minus the racism and with added Marxism), one of Miéville’s favourite themes is the inadequacy of language in describing the bizarre and the profound, expounded in such novels as Embassytown and The City and the City, as well as his superlative short fiction. The entire novella is shrouded in mystery — almost no-one has a name, and there is a sense of several narratives going on just outside the reader’s field of view. The story operates on the margins, its meaning never quite made clear, the reader left to puzzle it out for themselves. It’s quintessentially Miéville, but with a level of precision and depth he’s never quite achieved before, and therefore perfect for the curious reader new to his work.
The tone throughout is one of unease, reflected in the ever-shifting prose. The novella opens with the line “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. That boy was I.” That sense of dissociative fear is key to the book’s technique. When the boy reaches the town at the foot of the hill, he blurts out that “My mother killed my father!”, but after a few minutes’ confusion this is revised to his father having killed his mother. The haziness of details like these is endemic to the book, as the limits of both language and memory impede our perception of events. We are repeatedly told that English is not the narrator’s first language, and that “He was nine years old, I think”; details are fuzzy and adults uncommunicative. This extends to the nature of the setting – there are several details which could be read as supernatural, but could just as easily be childish fantasy. The narrator tells us that “Our house was at the same level of the slope as those of a few weather-watchers and hermits and witches”, but it’s hard to tell whether this is a case of genuine magic or local superstition. Similarly, we’re told the boy’s father makes keys, not for locks, but for “love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly”. Again, is the father genuinely some sort of magical locksmith, or is the boy simply misunderstanding his father’s real profession? Contradictions abound — the boy says his father’s clients are never seen again, then offhandedly mentions conversations with them, the father is estranged from the town and then accepted again without explanation, and the nature of the mother’s disappearance is constantly elided. The novella provides multiple answers to the many questions raised, but refuses to settle on any one of them. Even the main character remains an enigma — at one point he confesses that his identity is a “mystery story” even to himself.
In the hands of a lesser writer this would be infuriating, but Miéville creates a setting that is richly textured as well as oblique. It’s a world in which street children fish for bats over abandoned bridges, in which giant lizards are kept in too-small jars, and when the narrator asks how this is possible he’s told simply “Magic, mate”. The titular census-taker cuts an intriguing figure; absent for three quarters of the book, he ends up as a kind of bureaucratic fairy godmother, listening to the boy where other grown-ups have written him off. It’s implied that he’s somehow broken away from his fellow bureaucrats when towards the end the father yells: “They were recalled! Why’s this one still counting? This man thinks he knows what I’ve done? When? Always?” The idea of a data-gatherer gone rogue is an appealing one, and apposite for a novella in which all information seems elusive and suspect.
This Census-Taker is by no means an easy read. It’s a frequently beautiful, occasionally maddening exercise in uncertainty, and the sense of a truth always just out of reach may alienate some readers. But for those prepared to go with it, it’s a fascinating labyrinth to get lost in. Its short length (at only 206 pages) means it’s tight and focused as well as dense, and it will surely reward repeat engagements. The book is itself a kind of census-taker; you must, eventually, scrape together answers to the questions it poses. But you know full well it will be back before long, and your answers will have changed in the interim.