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Elizabeth Baines

Please see archives for reports on Tove Janssen's The Summer Book and The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

July 2022
This Census Taker
China Mieville

Warning: plot spoil.

This was a short novel - Doug's suggestion - which most of us found utterly compelling, but which ultimately left us puzzled. Set in an imaginary place and time, it opens stunningly as the narrator presents the picture of a boy running from an isolated house on a hill to the town below, his hands covered in something he believes is blood, but which is not blood, a boy whom the narrator says was himself. Arriving where the watching townspeople are waiting, he cries that his mother has killed his father. Right away it is clear that this novel - in which the boy is referred to sometimes as he, sometimes as I, and once or twice in the second person - is about identity and uncertainty. His father, we soon discover, has not been killed. So what did the boy witness? He himself isn't sure. His mother has disappeared. Was it that his father killed his mother? His father is violent and kills animals, battering them to death with his hands, and drops the bodies into a deep pit in a cave; the boy suspects that he has overheard his father killing visitors, customers who come up from a town clearly wrecked by a past war and industrial decline to buy the keys he makes, keys that have seemingly magical properties. The boy is deeply afraid of his father and makes attempts to run away to the town and its strange population of homeless children, only to be brought back by the town officials. Yet his father is consistently gentle towards him. And his mother, who appears to have left a note saying that she is going away, was undemonstrative and insular. And there are hints that both she and the father have been sleepers, the father having come from another country. Meanwhile, there are strange double gunshots on the mountain and mysterious figures half-appearing and then disappearing in the mist. Finally, in the father's absence a census taker with a double-barrelled gun arrives at the house. He hails from the boy's father's country and is briefed to record all those from that country living here (although the father will say that the census takers, the 'tallymen', are supposed to have gone). Taken by the boy to the pit in which he suspects his mother's body has been thrown, the census taker lowers himself down into it, but it is never revealed what he finds. He then takes the boy away with him to be his apprentice, at which point it becomes clear to the reader that 'this census taker' refers to the narrator himself. The novel ends inconclusively, with the census taker and the boy descending the mountain away from the boy's home.

We were very taken by the evocative mystery of all this and the vividness of the imagined world, and I was thrilled by the language, which is lyrical and muscular with archaisms and resonant neologisms - a wood is a 'boscage' for instance. Unfortunately however we felt the need to work the mysteries out, but were unable to do so. The novel it seems is also about writing and recording. The narrator explains early on in the novel that he is tasked to write three books, each with a different purpose. The first is a 'book of numbers', a record presumably (a census), intended for everyone 'though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it', the third will be a book of secrets, written only for himself. The second is the book he is writing now (and that we are reading). It's for others to read and is 'performance', the mentor has told him, but it can still hold secrets and send hidden messages. What all this signified precisely, however, we were unclear. We were full of questions: what precisely is this novel saying about writing? What value are we meant to assign to these different aspects of writing/recording? Is creating records the instrument of repressive governments, as implied in the catechism of the narrator's predecessor (who, significantly, has gone missing)?:

The Hope is So:
Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets.
Take Accounts. Keep Estimates. Realise
Interests. So
Reach Our Government's Ultimate Ends.

If so, what are we to make of the census taker being the boy's saviour, and the boy's becoming a census taker in turn? Are the father and mother examples of those who slip such repressions? But then isn't the father violent and cruel? There is much about language and communication: the father isn't fluent in the language of the town; the boy, taught to read inadequately by his mother, and whose viewpoint we share for most of the time, is cut off from much understanding of the world. We were quite clear that the novel was about uncertainty, but what was it saying about uncertainty? And what was it saying about identity? The first pages promise an exciting exploration of the fluidity of identity and the uncertainties of storytelling, but none of us felt that we had come away with any clear message about that.

I had turned to look at reviews to see what others had made of the book. Most reviewers, impressed as we were by the language and the author's imagination, seemed to avoid the matter of interpretation (as if, possibly, they felt there must be an interpretation, but that they hadn't actually got it), but at least one reviewer castigated those who would expect a meaning or a message, seeming to imply that it was a bourgeois requirement. This was a notion that we had in fact heard expressed elsewhere, mainly by writers in writing groups. However, the fact is that everyone in our group did want to be able to take a meaning from the book, and we discussed this matter. We acknowledged that, as John pointed out, there are authors, such as Beckett, who refuse to say what their work means, and whose work defies single interpretation, but their works are in fact open to interpretation. So why do we want a meaning when we see a play or read a book? It is because, we decided, we want to come away with a sense of having been moved on in our insights. Reading and writing were otherwise mere diversions, we felt, and we preferred a more serious purpose.

We did not however make the assumption that China Mieville did not intend a meaning - everything about the book seems heavily weighted with significance - and Mark expressed the view that the novel was simply flawed, and that Mieville had dropped the balls he had thrown in the air.

The next meeting will be in October. Book to be decided.

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