A family whirring away like clockwork, day in day out, everybody with their specified roles and functions, everybody more or less happy to be a smaller part within a collective–until an unexpected interruption of their normal rhythms exposes the sinister nature of what keeps the machinery going. This description could apply both to Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated by Srinath Perur) and Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast (translated by Jamie Bulloch), two novellas that I just happened to read one after the other, and which turned out to be interestingly similar, despite having been produced in vastly different contexts.
Ghachar Ghochar was written in Kannada (one of many South Asian languages), in India, only a few years ago, and the author has stated in interviews that it is informed by contemporary Indian anxieties that are not too dissimilar to those of post-Brexit Britain or Trump’s America; The Mussel Feast was written in German, by a German author, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both are immensely popular in the authors’ countries of origin, and have only recently been published in English. Both are around 100 pages long, and benefit from being devoured all in one go. And both, as I said, are about families–families that appear innocuous at first, until the layers are slowly peeled, each more sinister than the previous one, until Ghachar Ghochar concludes with the most wonderfully chilling final chapter I’ve read since Foxlowe (another great novel about a messed-up family, though in this case the family is also a cult), and The Mussel Feast ends in a more understated but equally thought-provoking way.
Ghachar Ghochar‘s family used to be poor, but now they’re rich. This thanks to Chikappa, the uncle, who is the sole breadwinner. Everyone revolves around Chikappa–the narrator, his parents, and his sister–and everything is conceived and done so he may live as comfortably as possible, so he may continue to work as hard as he does, and continue to be the breadwinner, and the family can continue to prosper. They’re like ants protecting their queen. In fact, Chikappa barely speaks, and, in the novella’s most dramatic moments, his defence mechanism is to retreat to the safety of his room and have all the other characters fight it out. As a result, he remains a bit of a cypher to the reader, almost as if he were being sheltered from us, too.
The Mussel Feast‘s patriarch also used to be poor. He used to be incredibly poor, but through sheer brilliance he was able to become an engineer, and create a good life for himself and his family. And he is so close to a promotion! This, at least, is the narrative that he wishes to impose on the rest of his family–wife, son, daughter–and, of course, it’s not the whole story. As the narrator gradually reveals, her father is one of the most loathsome representatives of the patriarchy ever committed to fiction. He tries to force each member of his family into the very specific roles he has decided, in his mind, they should all perform, based on his very specific notions of what a perfect family should look like. And when his wife, son, and daughter all inevitably and repeatedly disappoint him, simply by being unique individuals rather than abstract notions, he makes their lives unbearable. He sulks, he mansplains, he sermonises, he throws tantrums, and, occasionally, he turns violent.
But things can’t go on as they do forever. In Ghachar Ghochar, the narrator marries Anita, a smart, fierce woman with a strong sense of ethics. And everything starts to unravel from there. And in The Mussel Feast, having prepared the titular meal in preparation for father’s return and in the expectation that they will celebrate news of a promotion, the narrator and her brother and mother find that father is a few minutes late, then an hour late, then two hours late, and it’s suddenly incredibly obvious how performative their whole lives are. And everything starts to unravel from there.
Both books are expertly crafted, with beautifully observed characters, perfect pacing, and a fine dose of humour to balance the darkness. (I loved, in particular, Vikram, the oracular waiter at the narrator’s favourite cafe in Ghachar Ghochar; and the narrator’s description of her father’s preferred way of spending Sunday morning, i.e. forcing her brother and sister to listen to Verdi with him.) And both, as I have already mentioned, are very short, and can and probably should be read in one go–particularly The Mussel Feast, which lacks chapters and whose paragraphs sometimes go on for page after page, with the result that you’re it’s hard to let go.
So–if you’ve already read Ghachar Ghochar, you should read The Mussel Feast, and if you’ve already read The Mussel Feast, you should read Ghachar Ghochar. And if you haven’t read either–what are you waiting for?