A recurring image in China Mieville’s 140-page novella This Census Taker is that of a deep pit concealed in a dark cave: a place for discarding rubbish and burying secrets. It’s a fitting metaphor for a very short — but very deep — book.
The work is thematically and structurally deep: an allusive, symbolic narrative exploring memory, perception and the traumas of war and childhood abuse, with secrets embedded in its text. At the surface level there are mysteries of setting and identity; at the most profound, palimpsests and concealed ciphers.
The background of the tale is what some critics dub a “soft” apocalypse: there has been a war accompanied by other disasters, but in the main the world has wound down, exhausted. Soil is barren, income is earned off the detritus of softer, better-resourced earlier times but half of the small town’s streetlights still work.
Down the mountain and into the town runs a small boy, screaming: one of his parents has killed the other but he’s so hysterical he cannot say clearly which. We never learn the boy’s full name, or those of many of the other characters. We are never sure where exactly the town is, although shadows flickering across the scenery and recurring in the boy’s imagination — walking cacti, bird-masked women — suggest this may be some even more dystopian future Bas-Lag, where Mieville’s first trilogy was set.
The townsfolk half-believe the boy for a while. An amateur militia and magistrate, who really do not want more trouble, end up accepting the father’s story that the woman has merely walked out. For that the father, a veteran from the war, is hated and needed by the town. He’s a kind of magician who forges keys to unlock secret desires, with a terrifying capacity for violence. For years the boy is forced to stay with the man, constantly poised for flight — until a census taker arrives.
The mystery of the title sits in the word “this” because there are three census takers in the story: the shabby man who arrives to add the surly veteran to his list; his current apprentice, the boy grown up; and the previous apprentice, a woman, whose books the boy overwrites. There are three books too: the first the book of the census, coded by its numbers; the third, a book of secret information; the second, the public, apparently uncoded, book of the census takers’ travels and memoirs.
What we are reading, we are told, is the second book. We are also told that a public text can conceal information too: in the structure, pattern and order the writer chooses for the words. If we haven’t, by that stage, realised that Mieville is playing a subtle game with us, we don’t deserve to read him.
We never learn what really happened, either to the boy’s family or to the world in which it exists. We never learn the truth of the senior census taker’s explanations about why and how he is enumerating what survives.
We move between the worlds of the three books: what can be known and counted; what can be told; and what can only be darkly and secretly imagined.
It’s like travelling through a surrealist landscape where impulse and imaginative leaps are the only techniques for arriving at insight — though never at certainty.
By what is surely not coincidence, this is not Mieville’s only work to be published this year. In August, Random House will issue The Last Days of New Paris. It’s an alternate history set in a surrealist Europe where World War II never ended, but got a great deal stranger, and where Andre Breton still stalks the pavements.