I’m not sure what leads me to link these two books, as different and far apart in time as they are, but China Miéville’s this census-taker (2016)and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe (1938) strike me as fables of human need. I’m not even sure what I mean by that, except that each book tells a story of the mysterious force of an underlying need that is never fully expressed. And each is a sparely beautiful masterpiece of speculative fiction.
Some find this census-taker baffling, but for me it is beautiful and mysterious, something to be read closely and lived moment by moment. It’s kind of a cross between fantasy and fable that stays with me. I’ll be reading this again and again.
From its opening scene of a boy running down a hillside in a cloud of dust screaming that his father killed his mother (no, it was the other way round, he realizes as he tries to piece his broken memories together), we get a powerful portrait of a traumatized boy, barely able to face the truth of what has happened.
Mostly, he talks to us in the third person, but we quickly see this is a first person narrative, the boy’s emotions too closed for him to let them surface as his own. Later we find that the narrator is an adult looking back on his childhood, and he seems to be under some sort of confinement, though we never find out the details.
This is world-building by omission that leaves only room for the most elemental drives and memories to force their way to the surface. The father is glimpsed as a distant figure who makes keys that have magical properties for his customers. He is also violent in a suppressed way, every now and then compelled to beat a wild animal to death, then toss its remains in a seemingly bottomless pit inside a cave above their house. The boy comes to believe he has killed his mother and a couple of other people and dropped their bodies into that abyss where they can never be found.
The boy and his father live on a hillside above a remote village that also seems broken. Miéville is always brilliant at describing strange cities, especially those with ruins and spoil piles, and here I’m reminded of a miniature version of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station. This is a nameless village with abandoned factories and houses collapsed in on themselves where people scavenge for items of value and street kids make their hideouts.
The larger world of this census-taker seems broken too, though the towns people have little contact with it and know it only by rumor. There were “troubles.” People (including the boy’s father) fled to remote areas to escape whatever was going on. There are rumors of individuals who count the people from there and follow them. One such person is the census-taker who appears late in the story to offer an alternative to the boy’s strange and mostly solitary life on the hillside.
Though we only get glimpses of the larger context of the story, as if the whole of it is too painful to narrate, each scene sharply draws the basic drives that somehow pull the characters toward one another. This is a short novel to be read slowly. Each detail suggests a world behind it, and many passages have an unforgettably beautiful intensity about them.
The Tartar Steppe
This is an absorbing portrait of a soldier, an officer of an unspecified time and place, who devotes his life in a remote fortress to the expectation of achieving military glory by fighting an enemy who never quite arrives. We follow him from the time of his first posting as a young man when he learns that the assignment is one of the worst he could possibly get.
The location is so isolated, high in the mountains, and the likelihood of an encounter with the enemy, and hence the chance to achieve glory, so remote that he tries at first to get out of it. He is persuaded to stay for a short time, and he reluctantly agrees.
However, when his first chance to be reassigned comes up, he is so entranced by the site of the looming mountains and mysterious terrain that he decides to stay on. And at his next chance, after a few years, he finds that the city he grew up in no longer feels like home. He’s grown apart from his friends and lover, and so decides once more to remain at the strange fortress. He returns to his post and finds gradually that everything he initially found irritating becomes not just routine but an irreplaceable part of his life.
This is a brilliant fable that reminds me of the title of one of Doris Lessing’s books of essays: Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. Buzzati encloses his protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, in a prison of hope, supported by a sense of duty and devotion. Drogo faces every event and turn in his life with the same sense of optimism, tinged by occasional bitterness when he feels misled or cheated, right up to the end of his life, when the hoped for invasion from the mysterious north seems about to begin.
Despite the relentless feeling of fate disappointing Drogo’s hopes, the flow of his life is always interesting. There are unexpected twists, even though the reader knows where this story of futility is headed. There is always the lure of the grand mountains which, even though Drogo can’t articulate it, is one of the forces that holds him there.
Buzzati wrote this in fascist Italy on the eve of World War II. It reflects both the illusions gripping the society of that time and his own upbringing in the mountains, where he loved to roam. The Tartar Steppe is a masterpiece, like this census-taker, that I can’t get out of my mind.
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