Date finished: April 11th 2017
Some people can reread their favourite books over and over again. I am not one of them. I’ve tried it and have found that I remember the books too well to be able to go through them again. And, anyway, with a wealth of literature in the world, why retread old ground when you could discover a new world?
When it comes to re-reading, I tend to be drawn to the books I was unsure of, or have a hazy recollection of. Such was the case with Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus which I revisited earlier this year – I remembered it to be entertaining and intricate, but little of the actual detail.
Inspired by the release of The Last Days of New Paris (which I intend to procure a copy of soon), I decided to revisit China Miéville’s This Census-Taker. Published with Picador (as opposed to his usual ventures with Pan Macmillan), This Census-Taker is Miéville’s first novella, and a foray into a more ephemeral, shorter and, perhaps, more literary territory.
It tells the tale of a young boy who runs down from his house in the hills to the town in the valley below confused and horrified, believing he has witnessed the murder of his mother by his father. But h
The first time I read it, I found This Census-Taker to be a strange beast, nothing like anything else from the author’s repertoire. There seemed to be a lot of hinting at its edges; tantalising glimpses of a richer world than the sparse prose and unreliable narrator allow to get through. Ambiguity ran through its pages, and the fear and confusion of the protagonist was often palpable, creating a disconcerting environment. This oblique atmosphere of discomfiting indeterminacy was part of what drew me back, part of a need to see if I could come closer to understanding.
Rereading I came more or less to the same conclusion, although I definitely picked up on some of the subtler aspects though, if anything, these raised even more questions. But I now understand why: when I first read it I felt as though I’d missed something, but this time I realised that This Census-Taker is deliberately vague and that Miéville himself probably doesn’t know what really happened. It’s a meditation on trauma and childhood, and succeeds in communicating the confusion of a young boy who doesn’t understand what he saw because he doesn’t have the faculties to process it. It would be possible to read into the novella in many ways, but you would never be able to be conclusive about its content. It’s an exercise in in conveyance, rather than a narrative structure.
I was reminded of a talk I heard by Andrew Michael Hurley, author of the stunning literary horror novel The Loney. He spoke of ultimately wanting to create an atmosphere of uncertainty; of an event glimpsed and of its witnesses never being able to be sure of what they may or may not have seen. That, for him – and I believe for me – is what horror is about.
It’s been said that each Miéville is a different genre, although most of his stuff is broadly speaking speculative fiction/fantasy. In this sense, This Census-Taker operates as something approaching literary horror, similar to The Loney. Indeed, I’ve seen other comparisons to Shirley Jackson on George Saunders. It’s a deliberately obscure work – it seeks to bewilder and disturb and it does so impeccably.
On a second read, I feel I understand This Census-Taker better and appreciate it more for what it is rather than for what it isn’t. It was a gamble for an author like Miéville to take such a direction in his writing, but it points to a maturity and willingness to experiment that suggests many more facets to an already wide-ranging writer. The story isn’t perfect, but it’s an intriguing, disturbing and conflicting experiment in a more literary spectrum of writing that defies understanding and teases its reader relentlessly.