This Census-Taker by China Mieville
Welcome to Saturday Shorts, where we feature short stories and novellas. Today’s selection is from “weird fiction” writer China Miéville.
Publisher’s Description: In a remote house on a hilltop, a lonely boy witnesses a profoundly traumatic event. He tries—and fails—to flee. Left alone with his increasingly deranged parent, he dreams of safety, of joining the other children in the town below, of escape.
When at last a stranger knocks at his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation might be over.
But by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? What is the purpose behind his questions? Is he friend? Enemy? Or something else altogether?
Filled with beauty, terror, and strangeness, This Census-Taker is a poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.
Possible spoilers beyond this point.
Agent Annie says…
I’m still trying to figure out what this book is really about and how to describe it. The plot synopsis I read really intrigued me, but as I started reading the book, I wouldn’t say that it captured what the book was about, but I can’t quite describe it either. I even found that my e-reader screen timed out before I had a chance to flip the page because I had to re-read so much of what was written.
The very first two sentences, “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I.” switched points of view, which is rare in a book, but worked in this instance because it brought to mind the fugue state of someone experiencing deep trauma and trying to disassociate their personal involvement in the events. In our recent round-table discussion, we talked about POV and how it affects the experiencing of the reader. If the goal was to create a state where the reader is as confused as the boy, then the author captured it. China Miéville even uses second person point of view at the end of Chapter 23 as a way to convey an even more intimate experience for the reader (and the boy) saying goodbye and the dread bubbling up from within.
I also had to ask myself if some of the basis of the story had to do with the experiences of the diaspora of the Jews. There was just enough in the description of the census taker and his purpose to make me wonder if the author was Jewish or had some ties to Judaism and the manner in which Jewish heritage is passed down through the mother. In Chapter 24, the census taker describes what it is he is doing, “My job’s to count just the people who were born where I was, or whose parents or grandparents were. … I started years ago, when we decided we had to take stock of things. After troubles. We needed to know where we were, Where we all were…” After researching China Mieville’s background, I found out that he is a Marxist and is a founding member of the Left Unity party in England. This makes a little more sense in that a socialist society would want to know who everyone is and what they owned in order to spread the wealth throughout a community.
I haven’t read any other works by China Miéville, but I very much would like to in order to understand if this is his normal style of writing or if it’s something new. I did read a bit on the web, specifically NPR and Wikipedia to find out more. It turns out that China Miéville writes in several genres, but is best described as surreal, and this book was definitely that. I give it a 4, mainly because it is going to stay with me for a long time, I want to find out more about this specific story (hopefully someone will put out a study guide) and it’s good enough that I want to read more of China Miéville’s work.
If you like this book…