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Review: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, The Accusation by Bandi and The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo

Ghachar Ghochar

By Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur, Penguin, 128 pages, $20

Suketu Mehta deems Vivek Shanbhag "an Indian Chekhov" – let's entertain this claim for a moment. What does it mean to transplant "Chekhovian" from late 19th-century Russia to contemporary south India? Ghachar Ghochar is a domestic novel that seems almost timeless in its lack of "rising Asia" talk; a few allusions suggest the era of economic liberalization, but the business by which the narrator's family has made its wealth hardly screams "new India." They sell spices – or, the narrator's uncle does; they live off him. Our unnamed narrator is a superfluous man of the type Chekhov might recognize: a sensitive being made redundant by his uncle's wild success. "Superfluous men" might have an additional, far darker meaning in Bangalore, which has recently seen a spike in the number of missing women. In Shanbhag's novel, translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, the gender dynamic is ghachar ghochar – irredeemably tangled – hardly as benign as the narrator might initially suggest. Shanbhag has earned this lofty comparison.

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The Accusation

By Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith, Anansi International, 256 pages, $19.95

On witnessing the Day of the Sun, North Korea's yearly pantomime of missiles and pompoms, who cannot wonder what goes through the minds in the columns waving flowers through Kim Il-sung Square? The story "City of Specters" contains a similar spectacle: 100,000 gathered for National Day celebrations, despite a rainstorm. Authorities insist this "miracle" of obedience demands the world's awe, but in Gyeong-hee, the story's protagonist, it incites nothing but terror. To borrow Bandi's line, North Korea elicits a "stage truth":

"It Hurts, Hahaha!"

"It Tickles, Boohoo!"

Though several North Koreans have written in exile, The Accusation is the first work of fiction authored by someone still living there. In Korean, "Bandi" means firefly: Ours is a small light briefly illuminating the hardships and injustices of the "Arduous March" of the early 1990s. The stories are understated but the dissent is scorching. The only way to adequately honour writing that puts the author's life in danger is to read it.

The Impossible Fairy Tale

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By Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong, Graywolf Press, 214 pages, $22.99

The Impossible Fairy Tale opens in 1998 in a city outside Seoul. A Grade 5 class is full of casual cruelty; one of the students is the victim of physical abuse and from there the story develops toward further violence. Then, two-thirds through, a crisis in a way breaks the plot and the novel blossoms into something warmer and more fantastical. Outside her writing, Han Yujoo runs a micropress called Oulipo – a nod to the "potential literature" movement. Part two of Fairy Tale, in which the writer-narrator wrestles with her character, draws comparison to Oulipo member Italo Calvino. A more contemporary comparison is Ali Smith. Han too finds meaning in repetition, puns, near-rhymes, mispronunciation and confusion – difficulties surmounted by Canadian translator Janet Hong to bring Han's wordplay into English. The fairy tale's conclusion brings not redemption (because what redemption for violence against children?) but a creative reckoning, an imagined other world of possibility when the present world collapses.

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