book reviews by Althea

This Census-Taker – China Miéville *****

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This Census-Taker
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A boy runs screaming into a village, having witnessed something horrible.

Years later, the narrator tells us, he is imprisoned, under guard, allowed to write this book in a solitary room.

There is something, he tells us, that his ‘manager’ told him:

“You never put anything down except to be read. Every word ever written is written to be read, and if some go unread that’s only chance, failure, they’re like grubs that die without changing….
So my first is a book of numbers. It’s lists and calculations and, for efficiency, I write it using ciphers. … This first book’s for everyone, though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it.
The third of my three books is for me. You’ll keep one, is what he told me, for you alone to read … But you’ll never be sure that no one else will read them: that’s the risk and that’s how the third book works. … You’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found but because it costs too much to not write it.
… The second book’s for readers, he said. But you can’t know when they’ll come, if they do. It’s the book for telling. But … you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. … The second book’s performance.”

This is the second book. In it, this man – this census-taker – tells us of his childhood, and hints at how he came to be where he is – and who he is.

It’s not a pleasant tale. It’s the tale of a child who has no one to trust. The first thing we learn is that, perhaps, he cannot even trust his own memory. He certainly cannot trust the psychopath that he is bound to. The law cannot be depended on to protect him. His friends are incapable of doing so. Citizens wait for the presence of ‘authority’ – but from where does that authority derive?

Right before reading this book, I has a discussion with some friends in which we bemoaned the recent popularity of stories with ambiguous endings, which seem to be all too popular these days. I have to admit – in some ways this is one of these. Both the narrator and the author know far more than they are telling, and the reader is left to guess. Much of this world exists outside the scope of these pages. There’s as much going on outside that circumference as there is within it. However, nevertheless, I absolutely loved this book. It didn’t feel unfinished, and at no point did I feel like Miéville was ‘cheating’ by refusing to make a decision. He knows more than he’s telling, here – but he definitely knows. The book is beautifully structured, with every element working in the context of the whole, and working around to a feeling of closing the circle of completion, even though much is yet unrevealed.

What is revealed is wonderfully tantalizing. For much of the book on might guess that the setting is any of number of poverty-stricken, war-torn contemporary locations. But we do get to find out that it is a post-apocalyptic setting, after some kind of anti-technology revolution. However, some people seem to retain some kind of abilities… are they technology-based, or some kind of magic? We’re not sure.

In a way, I believe that the point of the book is that it doesn’t matter. The average person has no idea how many things work. We don’t know, here, the point or goal of the census, or why unknown forces might want – or not want – it completed. What has a psychopathic killer fled, and what has shaped his strange and terrifying dysfunctional episodes? We don’t know – but all these things ring true as things that just might not be known.

On the other hand – the narrator does, at the end, refer to his book – this book – as a “prologue.” It would certainly be wonderful if Miéville were to write a longer novel set in this intriguing world.

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