‘Census’ by Panos Ioannides

My rating: 3 stars

Unmistakably inspired by the nativity of Jesus, Census by the Cypriot writer Panos Ioannides features various elements from Christian mythology. As the story evolves, it gets progressively more metaphysical. The realistic fiction characteristics of the first part of the book are swapped for too many magical realism elements, and, in consequence, almost all of the characters stop feeling authentic. They start being portrayed as symbols of a theoretical message.

Joseph and Maria Akritas, the main characters in this story, were travelling by car to Spilia when they saw a young man carrying a backpack and a guitar. He was called Michael and was from Patmos. They decided to give him a lift, seeing that they were all heading to the same village. He was going to stay with two friends, the Archangielsks, who were doing some restoration work in a local chapel. Maria seemed to be entranced by him.

When Joseph and Maria arrived at the house they always stayed in while in the village to rest for a few days, their host, Avgi, wasn’t there. She left a note saying that she had to leave in a hurry and didn’t know how long she was going to be away for. The house was at their disposal, though. They were already acquainted with many of the inhabitants and received various visitors. But the most interesting facet of the book is to gradually uncover the reasons behind the tribulations of Maria’s and Joseph’s relationship.

They were both keeping secrets from each other. Joseph was a war reporter and had recently returned to Cyprus after some time abroad. Inexplicably, he was refusing to write about his last trip, something seemed to be bothering him. He had not been the same since his homecoming. While he behaved in an introverted way, Maria was more vivacious. She had troubles of her own, though. She had discovered that she had cancer, but still hadn’t had the courage to tell Joseph. Moreover, she felt ignored by him and longed for moments of passion in her life. Their relationship was passing for a challenging period. Without forewarning, Joseph decided to buy a place in Spilia and told Maria that she didn’t need to stay there with him.

Their life in common became even more problematic following a dinner they hosted at the place they were staying in. It ended with Maria having sex with Michael after Joseph being led out of the house by the Archangielsks. From this moment forward, the book becomes gradually stranger, and the characters feel more unreal. Nevertheless, there was at least a previous moment that I didn’t fully understand the purpose of. During the already mentioned dinner, various quotes by unidentified characters are put on paper in a confusing way. Were they all in a kind of trance because of the songs Michael was playing?

Throughout the book, the characters raise various philosophical, religious and behavioural questions. Although I found the religions considerations, such as the conflict between good and evil, exceedingly tedious, the ones related to the way we act in society were thought-provoking. Joseph raises the issue of people behaving in a different way when they know that they are being observed by reporters. They exaggerate their actions to make sure they will be in the news, even if they have to be exponentially cruel. There is also an interesting reflection on education during a conversation between a teacher from Spilia, Kyrios Demetriades, and Joseph.

“We produce people willing, and perhaps able, to win over the world, even at the cost of losing their humanity…”

The enjoyment I got from reading Census at first turned into boredom as the characters stopped feeling truly human and started acting as representations of Christian figures. I don’t dislike magical realism elements, but they have to be used in a way that doesn’t prevent the characters from feeling genuine, which didn’t happen in this case.

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