(Joseph Wright of Derby, Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight, oil on canvas, 1791; Derby Museum and Art Gallery; from here)
A boy runs crying down a mountainside into the city. He has seen – what has he seen? His mother killing his father? His father killing his mother? Something else? So begins this strange little novel, in which everything, filtered through the seven-year-old boy’s perception, is subjective.
The boy’s story is written by himself, years later; the memories are still so distressing that his prose flickers between the first and third person – even, once, the second person – as he dissociates himself from it. The boy is an ‘uphiller’, living a somewhat isolated existence with his key-making father and his undemonstrative mother, who scratches out a bleak garden from the sterile hillside soil. A little way beyond is a cave which gives onto an immense, deep pit where the family casts their rubbish. Sometimes, the boy sees his father brutally kill animals and pitch their corpses into the hole. Sometimes, he is sure that he hears his father murdering a customer. His mother takes him down to the city when she goes shopping, and pushes him into befriending a gang of street children. With his mother, the boy seems to see things that she does not; this wins her approval.
Do these strange creatures exist or not? It is never clear; there are hints that the land is haunted by creatures we would not recognise and the boy fears being out after dark as there are predatory beasts on the mountain; he hears them. One of the street boys, Drobe, draws winged people but they may be things he has imagined rather than seen.
So this is a novel about perception and about the porous relationship between the imagination, memory and external stimuli. The boy witnesses things that he doesn’t understand; his adult self, writing the story down, cannot or will not always explain. In fact, the adult’s situation is mysterious too: he works for the census-taker – indeed he is, perhaps, himself this census-taker – but in an atmosphere of repression. The census-taker who arrives on the mountain near the end of the book is not just a list-maker, he is a judge; he helps the boy but he or the system he represents may not be benign. The adult narrator seems to be writing his story down in secret, as if to do so is forbidden, and to be under some sort of arrest for an unnamed offence. The act of recording – either taking the census or writing down a story – seems to be dangerous in itself, an imposition of one person’s point of view, one version of reality, on another. The narrator tries to retain the ambiguity and fluidity of his memories but by writing them down he is fixing them, rejecting other versions. Miéville seems to be here in conversation with Albert Camus, illustrating his theory of the Absurd (that we seek meaning and value in life but are unable to find it). At the end of the novel, the reader is left with many questions and a sense of discombobulation, even frustration. The novel itself becomes a failed attempt to create meaning and value, to shape what cannot be shaped.
(Meara Sharma, Uncollected trash piles up all over the city of Trivandrum, Living on Earth website)
This Census-Taker is also a study in alienation. The narrator is alienated from his memories, having to switch to the third person to even write down some of them, and from his father. The people of the city and the mountain are alienated from nature, inhabiting a hostile landscape that is strewn with rubbish and far from fecund; they are also alienated from their own history, unsure of what happened in the recent war with robots. They don’t understand the purpose of the derelict buildings or some of the rubbish heaped up around them. Even the reader is deliberately alienated from the story; names are withheld, comprehension made difficult, beauty kept in short supply, everything is strange. The boy describes things he does not understand. Much of what we might expect in a novel – meaning, certainty, closure, setting – are denied us. We can’t even be sure if it takes place on a future Earth or another world altogether.
This is an eerie and discomfiting book, rich in symbol and imagery, shifty and questioning. It is one of those rare novels that really will make you see the world around you anew. And I haven’t even mentioned how beautifully Miéville writes...