Wednesday, March 02, 2016

"This Census-Taker" - China Miéville

We had some weather this morning:

Hail on the drive; rain on the window

Enough! Let's consider China Miéville's Kafkaesque new novella, "This Census-Taker".

Here's the blurb:
"In a remote house on a hilltop, a lonely boy witnesses a 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?"
A feature of Miéville's novels is an intense focus on setting and atmosphere. The boy lives with his father and mother in a shack on a hill overlooking a hick country town, 'Bridgetown'. The nearest city is remote, 'on the coast', and the source of unspecified political power remoter still.

The father is a foreigner, a practitioner of some unspecified but esoteric handicraft, who did something terrible in a past war and had to flee; the mother is a local who left Bridgetown for the coast, only to return with her new husband.

Miéville's writing is cool and dislocated; alienation the dominant mode of relationships. Temporal order is subverted and the story-telling lurches from first to second to third person. Through a gathering immersion in the 'traumatic event' and its aftermath, the reader is challenged to figure out what the wider narrative might be. Ostensible resolution comes finally through the Census-Taker but ambiguity persists to the end of the book.

This review could continue with spoilers, perhaps give you a personal opinion of what a plain statement of this narrative would convey, but why undermine the point of reading it? You engage with China Miéville to enter strange, subverted realities and in this novella, to re-experience childhood's loneliness and confusion and a child's naive vulnerability to adult manipulation. And as an adult, to comprehend in your own way more than the main character, the boy, can appreciate.

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