Early on in Jaroslav Kalfař’s superb debut, Spaceman of Bohemia, a Czech politician complains that his country is only famous for its ‘great affinity for beer or pornography’. His suggested solution is to make the narrator, a young astrophysicist named Jakub Procházka, the first Czech astronaut, sending him to investigate Chopra, a cloud of cosmic dust that has formed between Earth and Venus, bathing ‘Earth’s nights in purple Zodiacal light’.
It might have been simpler to remind people of the great Czech literary tradition, a strain of which has always embraced the texture of everyday life – beer and pornography – while glancingly addressing much larger questions. The novels of Bohumil Hrabal, for instance, irreverent and anecdotal in form, slowly reveal their engagement with the often brutal history of 20th-century Czechoslovakia. Kalfař’s book sits happily in this tradition.
Jakub is driven to become a national hero by shame at his father’s career as a communist collaborator. That obsession with his past seems to have ruined his marriage, something he only recognises when his mission fails and, in the book’s second half, he returns to Earth. Kalfař, who emigrated to the USA when he was fifteen, evokes Jakub’s childhood in post-Soviet rural Bohemia with rich specificity: the bristles of a slaughtered pig’s hair falling off its body in boiling water; the village drunk singing about ‘tits and rivers filled with Becherovka’. Just as persuasive are his depictions of a thrusting, corrupt, near-future Czechia and of Jakub’s space odyssey, undertaken with only Hanuš, a telepathic alien spider, for company.
This Is Memorial Device by music journalist David Keenan is another ambitious first novel fixated with a lovingly detailed past. It takes the form of an oral history of the titular Memorial Device, a fictional post-punk band in 1980s Airdrie. Characters and incidents recur within the reminiscences of groupies, relatives and roadies, without adding up to much of a narrative. Instead, through these testimonies we start to build a picture of ‘the black fucking hole’, ‘the life sentence’ that was small-town Lanarkshire from 1983 to 1985: depressed, violent, substance-dependent, yet thrumming with adolescent yearning and ambition.
The politics of the world beyond are only glimpsed on Airdrie’s edges, or passing through it. Memorial Device’s drummer goes off to fight for the Palestinian cause; a former IRA terrorist hides in one narrator’s attic. Similarly, Memorial Device themselves remain elusive, supporting characters in other people’s stories: lead singer and idiot savant, Lucas; ersatz intellectual Richard, ‘the most eccentric of the lot’, which ‘made him the drummer, inevitably’. The band’s principal role is, as the name suggests, to act like a louder version of Proust’s madeleine, conjuring up memories of a particular time and place.
Keenan’s Airdrie can seem outlandish, with its cast of porn stars and singing mannequins – this is, as the book’s subtitle concedes, a ‘hallucinated oral history’. But This Is Memorial Device is vital and funny and almost worth reading for the fictional post-punk band names alone: ‘Chinese Moon’, ‘Nein Nein Nein’, ‘The Spazzers’.
Small-town adolescent yearning also animates Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade. Sixteen-year-old Sonny lives a life of diminished horizons in 1980s County Dublin. His family share a cramped council flat, where his mother rarely strays from the kitchen sink, at which she stands ‘peeling, always peeling’, and if not peeling, then berating Sonny’s father for blowing what little money he earns labouring at the bookies. Sonny wants more from life, but when he snatches at the idea of becoming a painter, it doesn’t occur to his careers counsellor that he might mean an artist: ‘your father’s in the building trade, he must know painters.’
Possible salvation arrives in the form of Vera, a beautiful but troubled Englishwoman whom Sonny meets while working with his father at her house on the titular Montpelier Parade. Their romance seems to provide him with a means of escape, though it becomes clear that Vera’s reasons for pursuing the relationship are, as one might expect from an adult sleeping with a sixteen-year-old, pretty disturbing.
The book is written in the second person, perhaps as though it’s Sonny talking to his younger self, and the sense of immediacy this creates makes this story of doomed romance both spry and engrossing. But it can also diminish the book’s own horizons, ironing out complexities in Sonny’s feelings with the authority of hindsight: ‘You told yourself you were just returning her book’; ‘you knew it was over.’ That’s a shame, as Geary otherwise shows himself to be a sensitive and thoughtful writer.
The diminished horizons of Dora in Polly Clark’s Larchfield are all the more painful for her having known broader ones. She is a published poet who has followed her much older architect husband, Kit, to Helensburgh, on the west coast of Scotland. Stuck at home with their new baby while Kit is at work, Dora finds herself patronised by the locals as ‘the poetess’ and driven to the point of madness by a dispute with her creepy Christian neighbours upstairs.
In an attempt to put her mind to some use, she begins to research the life of W H Auden, who once also found himself a fish out of water in Helensburgh, working as a master at Larchfield, the local boarding school. Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh – which read, as Clark tells them, like Decline and Fall with fewer jokes – are interwoven with Dora’s own and, of these two parallel narratives, work much the better. Dora’s chapters are too full of dialogue that has a narrative function but which you can’t believe characters haven’t said before. ‘We should give her a name,’ Kit points out when their daughter is born.
Clark, however, beautifully captures Auden’s mixture of diffidence and defiance: ‘He’s going to wear his bow tie, which is yellow,’ he decides after fretting about an invitation to a school function, ‘and his fedora, and they can fuck off.’ It’s a portrait of the poet that deserves a novel to itself.