Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Reading group: This Census Taker by China Mieville

Warning: plot spoil.

This was a short novel - Doug's suggestion - which most of us found utterly compelling, but which ultimately left us puzzled. Set in an imaginary place and time, it opens stunningly as the narrator presents the picture of a boy running from an isolated house on a hill to the town below, his hands covered in something he believes is blood, but which is not blood, a boy whom the narrator says was himself. Arriving where the watching townspeople are waiting, he cries that his mother has killed his father. Right away it is clear that this novel - in which the boy is referred to sometimes as he, sometimes as I, and once or twice in the second person - is about identity and uncertainty. His father, we soon discover, has not been killed. So what did the boy witness?  He himself isn't sure. His mother has disappeared. Was it that his father killed his mother? His father is violent and kills animals, battering them to death with his hands, and drops the bodies into a deep pit in a cave; the boy suspects that he has overheard his father killing visitors, customers who come up from a town clearly wrecked by a past war and industrial decline to buy the keys he makes, keys that have seemingly magical properties. The boy is deeply afraid of his father and makes attempts to run away to the town and its strange population of homeless children, only to be brought back by the town officials. Yet his father is consistently gentle towards him. And his mother, who appears to have left a note saying that she is going away, was undemonstrative and insular. And there are hints that both she and the father have been sleepers, the father having come from another country. Meanwhile, there are strange double gunshots on the mountain and mysterious figures half-appearing and then disappearing in the mist. Finally, in the father's absence a census taker with a double-barrelled gun arrives at the house. He hails from the boy's father's country and is briefed to record all those from that country living here (although the father will say that the census takers, the 'tallymen', are supposed to have gone). Taken by the boy to the pit in which he suspects his mother's body has been thrown, the census taker lowers himself down into it, but it is never revealed what he finds. He then takes the boy away with him to be his apprentice, at which point it becomes clear to the reader that 'this census taker' refers to the narrator himself. The novel ends inconclusively, with the census taker and the boy descending the mountain away from the boy's home.

We were very taken by the evocative mystery of all this and the vividness of the imagined world, and I was thrilled by the language, which is lyrical and muscular with archaisms and resonant neologisms - a wood is a 'boscage' for instance. Unfortunately however we felt the need to work the mysteries out, but were unable to do so. The novel it seems is also about writing and recording. The narrator explains early on in the novel that he is tasked to write three books, each with a different purpose. The first is a 'book of numbers', a record presumably (a census), intended for everyone 'though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it', the third will be a book of secrets, written only for himself. The second is the book he is writing now (and that we are reading). It's for others to read and is 'performance', the mentor has told him, but it can still hold secrets and send hidden messages. What all this signified precisely, however, we were unclear. We were full of questions: what precisely is this novel saying about writing? What value are we meant to assign to these different aspects of writing/recording? Is creating records the instrument of repressive governments, as implied in the catechism of the narrator's predecessor (who, significantly, has gone missing)?:

The Hope is So:

Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets.

Take Accounts. Keep Estimates. Realise

Interests. So

Reach Our Government's Ultimate Ends.

If so, what are we to make of the census taker being the boy's saviour, and the boy's becoming a census taker in turn? Are the father and mother examples of those who slip such repressions? But then isn't the father violent and cruel? There is much about language and communication: the father isn't fluent in the language of the town; the boy, taught to read inadequately by his mother, and whose viewpoint we share for most of the time, is cut off from much understanding of the world. We were quite clear that the novel was about uncertainty, but what was it saying about uncertainty? And what was it saying about identity? The first pages promise an exciting exploration of the fluidity of identity and the uncertainties of storytelling, but none of us felt that we had come away with any clear message about that.

I had turned to look at reviews to see what others had made of the book. Most reviewers, impressed as we were by the language and the author's imagination, seemed to avoid the matter of interpretation (as if, possibly, they felt there must be an interpretation, but that they hadn't actually got it), but at least one reviewer castigated those who would expect a meaning or a message, seeming to imply that it was a bourgeois requirement. This was a notion that we had in fact heard expressed elsewhere, mainly by writers in writing groups. However, the fact is that everyone in our group did want to be able to take a meaning from the book, and we discussed this matter. We acknowledged that, as John pointed out, there are authors, such as Beckett, who refuse to say what their work means, and whose work defies single interpretation, but their works are in fact open to interpretation. So why do we want a meaning when we see a play or read a book? It is because, we decided, we want to come away with a sense of having been moved on in our insights. Reading and writing were otherwise mere diversions, we felt, and we preferred a more serious purpose.

We did not however make the assumption that China Mieville did not intend a meaning - everything about the book seems heavily weighted with significance - and Mark expressed the view that the novel was simply flawed, and that Mieville had dropped the balls he had thrown in the air. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reading Group: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Clare suggested this internationally bestselling debut novel written in English by a celebrated Vietnamese poet. A family saga narrated alternately by a grandmother and her present-day granddaughter, it deals with four generations of the Tran family, and depicts the extreme trauma they experience through the French occupation in the twenties, the barbaric practices of the Communist land reforms, the American involvement in the second Indochinese War, and the continuing legacy of the use by the Americans of Agent Orange. During this time, grandmother Dieu Lan sees her father beheaded, is forced to flee from her farm with her children and loses her grown children to the damaging conflict in the south.

This was subject matter that, on the intellectual level, alerted the interest of all of us, and Clare, introducing the book, declared her appreciation of the fact that the book addresses a viewpoint and experience that has so far had little attention in accounts of this history, a point with which we all agreed. However, although she appreciated the lyrical descriptions, she found the narration plodding, and therefore not in fact all that engaging. We all felt the same. In fact, I didn't find the descriptive passages as lyrical as Clare did, but rather cliched and clumsy and thus alienating rather than engaging. All felt that the characters were hard to engage with as they never came to life. As Ann pointed out, they were ciphers, each created to illustrate a particular aspect of Vietnamese history. Someone also commented that the book was sentimental.

It was clear to us that it had been a dynamic political choice to write the book in English, as those who need most to hear its message are Americans and the West. We felt it a shame therefore that because of this lack of emotional involvement with the characters, we engaged only intellectually with the message, since the real potential political power of fiction is in its ability to make readers identify with a message on an emotional level. Mark - who wasn't at the meeting - also pointed out later that it was sometimes hard in any case to grasp the history, since there was no differentiation between the two alternating voices, and sometimes he got muddled about what had happened when. It was also his cynical view that the book's huge success is down to American guilt about Vietnam, a guilt which indeed preceded its publication, and thus paved the way for its reception.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Reading group: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

As I predicted, having Covid put me right off my stride with my new novel, and as a result I have since re-conceived the whole thing - for the better, I think! This has taken up much time and preoccupation (as conceiving a novel always does, I find - trying out different starting points, different voices, persons, tenses etc, and waiting for the direction of the whole thing, and the deeper meanings, to become clear to me before I can properly launch into it) and  I've also been very involved with family matters, while also reading reams for a literary prize, so my reports for the reading group have lapsed. This catch-up report and the next will be necessarily brief, partly as my memory of the discussions will inevitably be less detailed, but also because we didn't in fact find much to say about either book.

All of us present enjoyed reading Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. A short book, it's the semi-autobiographical portrayal of life for a young girl, Sophia (who in real life was Jansson's niece), and her grandmother (in reality Jansson's mother) on the tiny isolated Finnish island they occupy with Sophia's father during the summer. Ann, who had suggested the book, said that she was very engaged by the relationship - two rather crotchety yet utterly bonded characters delineated movingly yet without a hint of sentimentality, often with humour. Everyone strongly agreed. The book is episodic, with chapters devoted to isolated incidents - the grandmother losing her false teeth, the visit of one of Sophia's friends, a night that Sophia tries camping, a storm - but overall is the sense of summer swelling and then fading. Overall too, is the sense of death - Sophia's mother is dead, and there is much of the grandmother's failing physicality - but this runs alongside a sense of the richness of life and nature. The thing that impressed me - and Doug - most was the prose, which seems very simple but somehow manages to create a striking vividness and an evocative atmosphere, so that the island with its teeming life and seasonally changing nature lingers in the mind. We were never sure whether the book is meant to portray a single summer or several consecutive summers - Sophia appears to become older, more sophisticated in her speech, but then later to regress - but this didn't really seem to matter, as the whole thing has a dreamlike quality with the magical logic of dreams. 

Mark was perhaps the least enthusiastic, feeling that the episodic nature of the book hardly qualified it as a novel. The rest of us had no problem with this, and my feeling was that there was no need to label the book. Whatever it was, we enjoyed it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here