“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost. For Keith, one of the characters central to the multi-voiced narrative of Ghost Town by Kevin Chen, translated by Darryl Sterk (Europa Editions, 327pp, £13.99) returning is especially delicate because he is returning to his home in Taiwan after spending time in a German prison having murdered the man who was his partner.
His parents are dead — no hindrance to being present in this novel — so it is his siblings who must take him in. This they do with beneficence but for each of them, and the friends Keith knew when he lived in the town of ghosts, the stirring of the past means striding into streams of memory. Each main character gets many opportunities to tell stories in a loose, this-reminds-me-of-that fashion — with important elements emerging in an incidental fashion — even when, as is quite often the case, they are detailing incidences of cruelty, especially from parents. The manifold ways in which their upbringing and natures combine to form their adult selves is another intricately formed element of an uncompromising, unsentimental, slyly humorous novel.
The recreation of the life of Pliny the Elder undertaken by Harald Voetmann in Awake, translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen (Lolli Editions, 135pp, £12.99) is also a book of callous deeds where the highest thoughts mix with the lowest actions. The structure is divided between scenes in which an unwell Pliny is attended to by his slave Diocles and episodes shaped by quotations from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historica, which lead to imagined elaborations of the subject matter of the quotation. These in turn are sometimes commented on — often in a caustic fashion — by Pliny the Younger, who had the job of managing his uncle’s papers.
From these elements, Voetmann has created a novel of startling perception, which leads to a contemporary consideration. Can the brilliance of someone’s writing transcend extreme personal failings? Pliny’s reference to “the mutually attractive and repellent forces of nature” is surely self-reflective. That he could only live in his own time is an obvious truth but the strictly maintained hierarchical structures that allowed women and slaves to be so appallingly mistreated must always have been unsettling. That we have no cause to feel superior is inferred from much of what is examined in this exceptionally accomplished reconstruction of an unsettling life.
From early in Pyre, by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Pushkin Press, 202pp, £9.99) — a novel set in 1980 — the sense of disquieting intrusion and judgment hoving into view is palpable. Newly-weds Saroja and Kumaresan have married in what will be condemned, almost without exception, as unsatisfactory circumstances. Worse again — as will become manifest in every moment of their new alliance — they have breached the codes that forbid the mixing of castes.
Forgoing the anonymity an urban setting to live in the village where Kumaresan was raised generates fierce disdain, even before they arrive. Kumaresan’s mother is foremost among those who unrelentingly direct vicious tirades at Saroja, whose every movement is viciously mocked by the villagers. The effect this has on a woman whose unalterable deficiency is to have pale skin is imparted through restrained, clear language which, although using the third person, gives us access to Saroja’s thoughts, connoting pained honesty and guileless intimacy and creating an overwhelming feeling of pathos.
The writing style of Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso, 352pp, £14.99) is austere but also, as such writing can often be, quite beautiful in its ability to match effect with intention and in its descriptive powers. The neurotic-seeming narrator has had all contact with her mother and sister severed many years before because she decided to abandon her husband and move to Utah with an artist called Mark.
In the current time of the novel Johanna, as we eventually learn she is called, has returned to Oslo and is determined — overdetermined, perhaps — to meet and talk to her mother. This becomes the narrow focus of the novel as Johanna moves into a remote cabin in the woods and begins to stalk her mother. With chapters that are sometimes just a single line and sometimes several pages, the author succeeds, to an unexpected extent, in holding our interest and in creating remarkable periods of tension in what are, objectively, innocuous circumstances. Because of her lamentable inability to achieve results from her obsessive and repetitious behaviour — or receive answers to her questions about the control exercised over her and her mother’s life — the narrator’s eventual resoluteness is as disquieting as the elk she sees violently rubbing off the velvet from its antlers.
A sense of uncertainty about one’s place in the world is also central to Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore (Les Fugitives, 110pp, £10.99), not only because the central characters are on a train bound for Siberia and never quite know where they are but also because they are attempting to escape without any idea of what it is they are escaping to. When we first meet Aliocha, he has been conscripted into the Russian army and is terrified about his near future. He feels no comradeship with the hundreds of other conscripts who are also on the train heading to Vladivostock. When he encounters Hélène, a French woman who has impulsively boarded the train after leaving her Russian boyfriend, their mutual understanding transcends language and she discerns what it is that he needs her to do if he is to avoid his unsought future. Using unadorned prose, de Kerangal constructs anxious moments, which defy any sense of inevitability or conclusion.
The five short stories in Mothers and Truckers by Ivana Dobrakovová, translated by Julia & Peter Sherwood (Jantar, 233pp, £12.00) vary significantly in tone and impact. All are from the perspectives of women who display contrasting attitudes and experiences, with persuasive, conversational voices. Ivana is, at the age of 31, still controlled by her mother so that even her infatuation with a writer must be hidden. Eventual defiance is constrained by memories of what she may have done when she was a horse-obsessed girl.
As in all of the stories, a balance is maintained between self-knowledge and unawareness, revelation and remorse. In separate stories, Olivia and Lara mention going to a performance of work by Pier Polo Pasolini, but that is their sole note of concord. Olivia dismisses almost everyone in an attempt to formulate some sense of her worth. Lara is increasingly drawn to risky sexual activity despite her awareness of the dangers: “I will pay the price, a price that is much too high.”
In another of the stories named after the main character, we watch over Veronika’s shoulder as she engages in online chats with men. The outcome of ever closer contact with a trucker is left to the reader to determine. Dobrakovová's writing is direct, achieving its effectiveness through the inherent candour of her disparate and desperate women.