THIS CENSUS- TAKER
The tallyman cometh...
released 25 February 160 pages | Hardback/ ebook
Author China Miéville
How reliable are our memories? We think of the life we recall as a chain of events to be trusted. Yet neuroscience teaches us that we construct the past from a combination of our own perceptions, the stories we’re told and old photographs. The idea of asking what really happened is deeply problematic – who’s to say?
That’s nowhere more acute than when looking back at traumatic childhood events, the kind of happenings that underpin China Miéville’s unsettling new novella. It tells the story of a boy who, living in upland isolation with his family, witnesses something terrible. He fears his father, a “key- maker” whom, the boy concludes, is a killer, concerned with “feeding only the darkness”.
As to the purpose of the keys, that’s unclear. Similarly, we’re never precisely told why the boy’s father might be violent. The “darkness” is represented by a hole in a cave so deep that anything disposed of there is lost forever.
Escape for the boy is represented by the appearance of a stranger, a “census- taker”. All of this is related by the boy’s elder self. He’s a record keeper himself, but even so his narrative is fractured.
What does all this mean? To answer “nothing definitive” might sound snarky, but it’s not meant as such. Much of the novella seems to find Miéville playing with mood in a book that, in addition to childhood struggles to understand the world, appears to touch tangentially on the fate of refugees, denial and favela living.
As for the primary mood all this conjures up, imagine Kafka crossed with the lush and lonely Americana of Jimmy Webb’s greatest songs. It shouldn’t work, but This Census- Taker is both gripping and tantalisingly elusive, perhaps not unconcidentally akin to trying to remember an important yet only halfunderstood event. Jonathan Wright
We can expect a full- length Miéville novel later this year: The Last Days Of New Paris ( due in August) is set in an alternate 1940.
Imagine Kafka crossed with Jimmy Webb