“Ghost Town”, by Kevin Chen: Taiwanese hauntings

During the Ghost Festival, in Taiwan, in 2021.

“Ghost Town” (Gui difang), by Kevin Chen, translated from Chinese (Taiwan) by Emmanuelle Péchenart, Seuil, 432 p., €23, digital €17.

About the main character of this novel, Chen Tienhong, we will know everything, or almost, from the first pages: born in Yongjing (Taiwan) and , he emigrated to Berlin, where he met a man he loved pionately – then killed. The text opens slowly, almost solemnly, with his return to his native country. After serving his sentence, Chen returns to face his family and his ghosts, without the reader knowing the reason. But we don’t know either why Tienhong killed T., her lover on the shores of the Baltic. Nor who are these ghosts of which the title of the book speaks – ghosttown (“ghost town”) – until, one thing leading to another, the author gives them the floor: we will hear the voice of the father, who has been dead for several years, we will listen to the past of the five sisters (and a little big brother too) of Chen Tienhong, who patiently rises to the surface. The story unfolds in time and space, from one voice, from one story to another, in the footsteps of something undecided, imprecise, which we know nevertheless will lead, more or less, to this mysterious murder, in Germany, many years later.

Upheavals of a place

The virtuosity of the construction of this novel, the first translated into French by Kevin Chen, born in 1976 in Taiwan, holds the attention. Far from misleading the reader, it helps to anchor him in a plot that says very precisely not what ghosts are, but what it means to be inhabited by them. The Chen children and parents are visited, determined by a history of violence and secrecy. Mixed with the upheavals of a place, the native village which evolves and transforms according to the XXe century, and the constant, brutal rejection of ity, even of ity in general when it is not socially controlled. Each member of the family hides something essential, intimate, linked to the deep desire that inhabits them. Something that keeps coming back to haunt him, and his whole family with him. Carried by a mysterious wind, the return of Chen Tienhong, a writer and criminal Orpheus, at the time of the traditional Ghost Festival in Yongjing, tears this veil.

Because, despite the choral nature of the text, Chen Tienhong is the main character of ghosttown. Throughout the pages, the different points of view focus on him, his difference, his absence, his return. The phobia of which he is the victim, the rejection and the bullying he endures take up more and more space in the story of the different members of the Chen family. Even before prison, before becoming a writer, he is the one through whom comes the scandal, the one who gradually embodies and reveals in spite of himself the secrets of his sisters and his brother, of his parents as well – until he becomes himself. a secret, the one we don’t talk about anymore, because of the prison. More broadly, he delivers his version of Taiwan at the twilight of the XXe century, and will experience an exemplary trajectory as a young gay writer fleeing his provincial and conservative origins. Finally, he shares several biographical traits with the author of the text, Kevin Chen (Berlin, writing, etc.).

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