International Literature: Lush Landscapes, Hazy Memories

Kevin Jared Hosein’s novel HUNGRY GHOSTS (327 pp., Ecco, $30) takes place on a sugar estate in 1940s Trinidad and the language is as lush, moody and thrilling as the landscape. On the hill is the house of Dalton and Marlee Changoor, sprawling and baroque; below, the “forsaken jumble of wood and zinc,” where five families squeeze together in squalor, including the Saroops: Hans, Shweta and their 13-year-old son, Krishna. “These barracks were scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse,” Hosein writes. “In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts.”

Almost every family in the barracks has suffered loss (a list of main characters includes the deceased as well as living). Hans and Shweta are still tormented by the “hungry ghost” of their infant daughter who died some years ago. But when Dalton disappears — has he been kidnapped or murdered? — Marlee turns to Hans to protect her from potential intruders. He is spellbound by Marlee and the promise of another world, “his posture almost phototropic as he angled towards her.”

Hosein’s electrifying novel is shrouded in drama and mystery, as Hans and Marlee orbit each other, Krishna struggles to assert himself, and the country itself undergoes great changes. The land, ultimately, is haunted and divided: “On one side, the belief of bush and burlap and sohari and jute and rattan and thatch and tapia. On the other … the dogma of a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass.”

Claudia, the 8-year-old narrator of Pilar Quintana’s ABYSS (219 pp., World Editions, paperback, $17.99), lives in an apartment so overgrown with plants she calls it “the jungle.” Outside, the city of Cali, Colombia, is “gloomy and desolate, like the inside of a very old house.” She’s frequently left to her own devices, her mother too engrossed in celebrity tabloids like Hola! and Vanidades, her father working late at the family supermarket.

Claudia, though, has a fertile imagination to keep her company, and it veers toward the morbid. She, too, becomes obsessed with magazine stories of tragedies (Lady Di and Princess Grace of Monaco, for example). Even scarier is when her mother’s best friend leaps to her death from her balcony, or when Claudia learns of the woman who drove off the foggy cliffs near the country house where they vacation.

All these tales take a hold on Claudia, especially after a rift develops between her parents. Their angry silence isolates Claudia even more, filling her with a queasy sensation similar to the one she gets peering into the canyons. “I wanted to face the abyss again,” she admits, “to feel the luscious feeling in my belly, and the fear, the desire both to jump and to run away.”

Quintana’s spare, atmospheric novel, succinctly translated by Lisa Dillman, explores Claudia’s high anxiety and the terrors of the adult world. And there’s much for her to fear: snakes, guerrillas, loneliness, crippling sadness. Even the house plants take on a ghostly presence. “I always thought of the plants as my mother’s dead,” Claudia says. “Her dead, reborn.”

The Chilean author Nona Fernández is one of her generation’s most original and dogged archivists of her country’s painful past. Her two earlier books, “Space Invaders” and “The Twilight Zone,” are intimate time capsules of the “hidden horrors” of the 1980s — true stories of torture and disappearances in the guise of fiction (or autofiction).

VOYAGER: Constellations of Memory (108 pp., Graywolf, paperback, $15), translated into rhythmic prose by Natasha Wimmer, is another one-of-a-kind blend of the personal and political, though decidedly more essayistic. Fernández was born on a winter day in 1971, she tells us, under the constellation of Cancer, the crab sign. What does this say about her? Well, like the crab, she is constantly looking backward, searching for ways the “light from the past illuminates our present.”

For Chileans, this can be a fraught proposition; but her concern is more cosmic, too. As she asks — gazing up at the night sky — in one of the book’s refrains: “Who are we? Where are we going? Where do we come from?” Fernández’s mind roams over a stunning array of topics: her mother’s epileptic spells, which cause her to black out; the lives of stars and “stellar memory”; Pinochet’s Caravan of Death, which scattered the bones of 26 people in the Atacama Desert in October 1973. Another refrain she repeats to herself: Never forget.

Throughout, Fernández’s focus is on the connections between lost memories, black holes and history’s “ghosts.” Like the Voyager space probes of 1977, Fernández is “a nosy drone that keeps watch and takes notes.” Chile — and readers everywhere — should be grateful.

Time and memory are the major themes of the French writer Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. His new novel, SCENE OF THE CRIME (157 pp., Yale University, $25), evocatively translated by Mark Polizzotti, unravels in a bygone Paris enveloped in a fog of déjà vu and vertigo.

Jean Bosmans — the central character of Modiano’s earlier book “Suspended Sentences” — is a novelist in his 70s looking back on a pivotal moment in his youth. As a small boy, he spent a short time as a foster child in a house that, by night, filled with “disreputable characters.” Later, in his 20s, he briefly reconnected with some of these figures and tried to piece together the mystery — or crime — that linked them.

The problem is that Bosmans’s memory is hazy at best; he retains only scattered images from that period, and reality and dreams blur together for him. Who were those phantoms from the past? Did they ever really exist? But even as Bosmans gathers clues to what may have happened, he’s even more interested in pursuing the intangible “dust — or rather, the odor — of time.”

Modiano, whose writing is heightened by elisions and silent pauses, is a master at creating mood. His Paris is aglow with noirish menace, a perfect palimpsest for Bosmans’s memories. “Everything was bathed in a light,” Bosmans recalls, “that lent a vivid phosphorescence to the people and streets.” Like Fernández, he continues to be haunted by the past: “It was as if a beam of light had finally reached him across all those years, the light of a dead star.”

Anderson Tepper is a chair of the international committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival and curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh.

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