Sunday, July 10, 2016

An unspace

This Census-Taker, by China Miéville, is short and creepy, and hints at a much larger narrative. Something small and intense that makes you ache for childhood and innocence. And truth.

I found no truth. Only vague impressions, vague questions.

Who is this census-taker? Is it the census-taker who comes asking questions? Or is the narrator referring to himself, the way this reader might speculate about the possible interpretations?

The epigraph, from Jane Gaskell. Houses built not for something, but against — the sea, the elements, the world, etc. Built with hatred. I think it makes this story one of social commentary. It's the father against the community, the community against him. Us and them. To which side does the census-taker belong? He is from the father's city, but maybe he kills him. He is bureaucrat, claiming authority, but one senses that the community would be against him. Where does the hatred come from?

I believe the father killed the mother. But I cannot know this.

What are his father's keys? His customers asked for "love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly." He would sketch the keys, correcting the lines as his customers spoke. Is this magic or metaphor? A key that changes the weather.

What is the nature of the hole? This is where they tip their rubbish, but no one else disposes of their garbage this way. Is their rubbish different? Does this serve a sacrificial purpose?

As an adult, as he writes, now, he is an honoured guest. But I believe he's in prison. It must be prison. Why is he in prison? Could it be a hospital ward? There is a chandelier and a wasp and a typewriter. Could he truly be a visiting dignitary afforded the usual honours?
The manager of my line told me, 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. He said, you'll keep three books.
Is that an order for the boy, now a grown-up? Do others also keep three books? Is this a rule for census-takers? The first book is numbers, for everyone; this one sounds official. The third book is for its writer alone, the book of secrets. The second book is for readers; it is performance. Although it too may tell secrets cryptically. The second book is chronologically the third that he writes. Why is it called the second book? This story is that book. What secrets does it tell? It is a conversation with a previous book, that of his predecessor. Where is the place with the raised neglected rails where outcasts live? The hope became the hate.

His second book begins:
Keying, No Obstacle Withstands.
What does he know? In keying the keys of the typewriter. The magic of writing? The magic of his father's keys?

Just what is his mother's business in town? Is it really just trade? I believe it to be something more nefarious. Why does she trust the boy to the derelict children?
The bridge had been inhabited once but some ordinance had forbidden that practice, broken though it was by the parentless children who squatted collapsing derelicts between the shops.

Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me. Where else could those children live?
What was it the mother used to do? In an office, they were training her, she was doing papers for them.

Where is the father from? The visitor wanting a key calls him councilman. Why does the father want a silver flower, "something you give someone for running away"? For helping them run away, or as a reward for the thing accomplished?

The traveller who stays at the picture-house. Things went wrong with her boss, when finally she could read all the paperwork and realized things were off. What repeal is she asking after?

What are the mother's papers? "A description of a carved box that was supposed to contain a person's soul."

What happened to the orphan boy Drobe? Did he really leave? Or did the father kill him too? Was he victim of some authority?

What does the census-taker see at the bottom of the hole? I believe he kills the father. Who used to work for him? She took off with the records. The traveller? Could it be the mother? Who is the agent following him? Is that the traveller? Issuing forgeries of what? What is this census-taker's authority?

This second book is only a prologue. This census-taker is rogue.

Some Theories

The Critical Flame: The Mastery of Absences: China Miéville’s This Census-Taker
The missing pieces in his story are organically missing and are of are two basic types. The first is what adults refuse to tell children and they cannot find out for themselves. The second is what children do not think to ask, because they don’t have an adult’s understanding of people and the world. From the perspective of adulthood, the book’s chain of logic is painfully deformed; yet from the perspective of the boy narrator, the gaps seem rather infrequent. His world is full of effects for which he does not instinctively seek causes. Effects without causes are called miracles. The book shimmers with miracles, as childhood does.
Strange Horizons: This Census-Taker by China Miéville
Filled with mystery, suspense, and magic—and, above all, secrets—This Census-Taker is a lot more than you'd think at first glance. It contains many stories, and storyworlds, nestled inside each other. A lizard that spends its whole life imprisoned in a bottle is not just a powerful symbol, but also echoes a recurring motive from China Miéville's novel Kraken (2010). There are descriptions of trains and of people who have never seen the sea that remind us of Railsea (2012), and a derelict cinema much like the one inspired by London's Gaumont State building in "Looking for Jake." There are children's games like the one at the beginning of Embassytown, and there are many other recurring motives and personal favourites of the author's: Gaskell, banyan trees, sending lamps down sinkholes, angry birds, bats, trains, the sea.
Out There Books: Is This Census-Taker Set in Bas-Lag?
The city where the narrator’s father is from is a mystery in itself. [...] The next stage of the mysterious city’s history is the great census-taking, which we only hear about in very vague terms in this book. For some reason the city decides that it needs to send agents out into the world to find out where all of its citizens are. Sounds like the kind of paranoid reaction New Crobuzon’s government might have.
Seven Circumstance: Imprecision with purpose — This Census-Taker, by China Miéville
The book has a sub-theme of hatred which runs end to end — the boy for his father, his mother for his father, his father for his clients and for the foreign census-taker, the townspeople for his parents and for the wild beggar children. What the census does is to neutralize hatred-filled situations in the town, and in the country, and even in the neighbouring countries, by being a record of the situation stated as neutral, objective numbers and facts. By simply interrogating and documenting the world, the foreign census-taker allays the boy’s fear, and is himself immune to the town’s hatred and quite powerful. Of all the characters, he is the calm, considered, fearless one.


Stefanie said...

You have made me decide that I will have to give this one another chance. I started it, got about 50 pages in and was finding it kind of meh so returned it to the library. Will stick with it next time!

Eosphoros said...

The first trainee’s full catechism is the one revealed at the end, which deciphers to “this census-taker is rogue”. So the narrator’s catechism, “I know”, is (at least partly) in answer to that.
The first trainee is the traveler who befriended Drobe. She found the papers recalling the census-taker, the repeal (also called “a flouted order” on p. 30), and realised he had gone awol.
The palimpsest the narrator inherited from his predecessor, which is the basis for his second book, is the box of papers the traveler had at the picture house. Drobe says she was looking for the agent tracking the census-taker, in order to incriminate him.

“Councilman” on p. 70 might refer to the Iron Council. If the father’s home city actually is New Crobuzon, then the war the father says he was in would have been the civil war, the revolution.
Is it possible to read “You want a silver flower? Want me to give you a flower, councilman?” as an accusation of desertion? Because the mother “nastily” says almost exactly the same: “You want a silver flower, do you?” and explains that a silver flower is “something you give someone for running away” (p. 73).

Eosphoros said...

P.S.: The majority of reviewers seems to think that the narrator is an adult – but on p. 30 he says he “started on [his] first book [i.e. the census ledger] three years ago”. For him to be fully grown, he’d have to spend perhaps about five years in training before starting to contribute to the census. I don’t feel this is right.

Isabella K said...

Stefanie, Mieville's not for everybody, and some of his books resonate better than others. I found this one demanding -- there's a lot the reader has to piece together -- but rewarding. Your mileage may vary.

Eosphoros, you make some great points. I think you may be right that the narrator is still young; the voice is quite naive. I really hope there are more Bas-Lag stories to come to bear these theories out.