Monthly Archives: April 2019

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

On The Remainder, equality, and throwing out the rulebook: an interview with Sophie Hughes

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Sophie Hughes. Sophie is the translator of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, which was published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. Sophie has also translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and six English PEN translate awards, and is a translator I greatly admire: the MBI shortlisting is testament not only to an excellent novel by Alia Trabucco Zerán and to the positive changes that And Other Stories have set in motion with their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, but also to Sophie’s great passion for and investment in her translations, and to the immense skill with which she carries them out.

Sophie Hughes, Man Booker International shortlisted translator of The Remainder (Alia Trabucco Zerán, And Other Stories 2018)

Helen Vassallo: How did you first come across The Remainder? Did you pitch for it, or was it offered to you?

Sophie Hughes: The writer and my friend Carlos Fonseca wrote to me saying he thought I’d like his friend’s debut novel. He knew I was translating a cult Mexican novella called El apando (The Hole, by José Revueltas, published by New Directions and co-translated with Amanda Hopkinson), which has a strangely hypnotic but relentless prose style. The first page of that novella unfolds in a single sentence; one half of The Remainder is written as a single sentence… Carlos clearly thought I hadn’t set myself enough of a challenge! So I was just lucky enough to read the book early. I then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and got it, and that paid for me to work on translating the whole novel. In the meantime, Alia got a world-class agent, and I think Stefan at And Other Stories read a sample on PEN’s dedicated webpage for the PEN/Heim grant. He was bowled over by Alia, as I had been, and asked me to do the translation. I actually pushed back my maternity leave to finish it, which is mad, of course, but love is mad, and I loved the book.

HV: What was it about The Remainder that you found particularly engaging, and that you think readers and the MBI judging panel have enjoyed in it?

SH: It’s impossible to say why the judges or other readers enjoyed it – I’m just pleased they did. I fell for Felipe, one of the novel’s three young characters living in the shadow of the Chilean dictatorship and who take a madcap road trip in a hearse to retrieve the body of one of their ex-militant mothers. Felipe is a rambler, a serial overthinker, an accidental virtuoso spewing his past and present out in one long sentence – it’s not always easy to read, actually, and can feel quite exhausting with all the constant digressions, but it was fun to translate! It meant I could throw out the grammar rulebook and just listen and try to improvise consonant cadences in the English (we look for close approximations all the time as literary translators, but more obviously so with semantics: jokes and sayings, etc.). More so than with other books I’ve translated, this was an exercise in close listening: translation as an infinite canon. One annoying detail when translating the book was the Spanish noun “el muerto” – “the dead man/person” – which comes up all the time. In the plural it’s easy – if inescapably Joycean – “the dead”, but “the dead man” is a clunky old phrase that didn’t work in lots of instances. I had to come up with some snappy alternatives and use them sparingly. ‘Stiff’ is a good word, but you can have too much of a good thing.

HV: You obviously have a very special connection with Alia. Do you work closely with all your authors?

SH: I’ve said it before, but it is true that to know Alia is to love her – she is humble and has a healthy irreverence for the literary world, yet is also incredibly gracious, generous of spirit, and infectiously passionate about reading and literature. She thinks and cares deeply about humankind, about histories and stories (historias – it’s the same word in Spanish), about what is right and good, and why we behave in ways that are neither right nor good. She’s funny but never flippant, and this comes across in La resta (and I hope in The Remainder). I love it when there is understanding between me and the authors I’m translating. I am from the school of: an author’s input can improve a translation. It’s not detrimental to the translation if you can’t rely on it, of course, but I always suss this out early and if they want to be involved in the translation process, I welcome it. In truth, I suppose I feel like some of the responsibility becomes shared. There is always some guesswork involved in translation because good literature necessarily contains ambiguities. When you read a novel, you read it with all of your history weighing on your interpretation, but this doesn’t really matter. When you translate, it does matter, because you will share that interpretation with others. Actors put on accents and so must we. To spend time talking with the author is one way I shed my accent and get closer to theirs. All this being said, some authors really just want to leave it to you (this will sound terrible, but I definitely would if I were an author), and in such cases I merely send a list of questions and never bother them again. So I’m lucky that I now count Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún and Alia among my best friends. Close reading is as beautiful a basis for a friendship as I can imagine.

HV: It seems that women’s voices from Latin America are being heard much more in English than before. Do you think there are specific reasons for this?

SH: Women’s voices in many fields and in many languages and places are being heard louder. This probably explains the phenomenon you describe. But let’s not beat around the bush: it is thanks to the concerted efforts of women that women are being heard. And the problem has not gone away, of course. Many have pointed out the blatant gender-ghettoization in the literary world, and I don’t have the answer for how to create gender parity without playing the numbers game, without employing positive discrimination: separate women writer lists, prizes, panels, blogs and projects and so on. But I do think that, in some cases, somewhere along the way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own” has been taken detrimentally literally.

Looking back, the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced some magnificent authors to the world, but its gender imbalance was scandalous. A scandal symptomatic of the times, yes, but scandalous nonetheless: women writers in Latin America were – and to some degree still are – the collateral damage of the deafening acclaim received by its entirely male cast. What is the opposite of boom? I can’t think what that might be. Does such a concept exist? If not, that might tell us what we need to know about how women writers from Latin America have been received, internally and internationally. Today, it’s unlikely that an analogous movement wouldn’t include women writers. But gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women.

A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance: tomorrow you could go to the library and search out, or chance upon, your favourite new author from Latin America. She might be a she. Many of us rely too heavily on the internet when public libraries represent such wonderfully democratic (cookie-free) search engines. What I mean is that every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.

There’s one last point I’d like to make with regards to the deep-seated misogyny and the physical and emotional abuses committed by too many men in the Latin American literary industry. The problem is endemic (although by no means unique to Latin America) and it has a deep impact on who gets published, publicised and read, but also on what women write, and which women write. When I lived in Latin America I was unlucky enough to see a GIF going around of an adult film star being penetrated from behind by a man, and an accompanying line referring to a contemporary woman writer and an editor, insinuating, of course, that she owed her publishing successes to offering sexual favours to influential men. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. I was sorry I had to see it. But now I’m not. A reader created that GIF for a very niche audience. Not some bored teenager trolling the girl he fancies at school. A reader of “high literature”. I use the grim GIF tale to remind me what women face whenever they sit at their desks to write: the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins. Perhaps it is our duty to do those writers the service of reading them. Relatedly, my colleagues and I have experienced unwanted and uninvited advances from male writers who seem to have trouble distinguishing our job as translators (to read them closer than anyone else) with another kind of intimacy. This rather makes you not want to be good at your job. To shrink into yourself. To evaporate on the page. To fall silent. There you go: the opposite of ‘boom’.

HV: And finally, the nature of publishing is that what we’re reading now is something that you worked on some time ago. What are you currently working on, or excited about?

SH: I’m currently translating a novel by Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, Fitzcarraldo, UK| New Directions, US, 2020). It’s a masterpiece. I have night sweats from the responsibility of translating this novel.

And I’m co-translating, with Juana Adcock, Giuseppe Caputo’s debut novel Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World, Charco Press, UK) which manages to be many things as once: a love letter between a father and son, a seething yet humourous portrait of lives lived in poverty, and a refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) honest reflection on the body as a space of pleasure and violence.

Read ‘A Bitter Pill’, Sophie’s translation of a short story by Alia Trabucco Zerán, in the April 2019 issue of Words Without Borders.

Sophie and Alia talk about their Man Booker International shortlisting on the Man Booker website.

The Remainder is published in the UK by And Other Stories, and will be released in the US by Coffee House Press in August 2019.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.

A dysfunctional Chinese dynasty: Yan Ge, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan

Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (Balestier Press, 2018)

This is the first of a double feature on the Translating Women blog: today I’m reviewing The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, published by Balestier Press, and next week I’ll be bringing you an exclusive interview between author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman.

Image from balestier.com

Set in a provincial village in China, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is the tale of a family empire with the formidable Madame May at its head. As May’s 80th birthday approaches, her middle-aged children gather to prepare an unforgettable celebration, but find themselves caught up in old rivalries and new problems of the heart.

Meet Dad, the unlikely anti-hero of the story, and heir apparent to the family business, the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. He has been working there since he was a teenager, initiated in the ways of stirring vats of fragrant bean paste by the grouchy shifu Chen. Dad’s older brother went off to university and never returned to the village, making a living now as an academic. His sister married a rather useless man, and Dad himself made a happy enough marriage, but that is not enough to keep him from having affairs because, after all, “a man always needed girls to screw.” When we meet Dad, he is embroiled with an artful young mistress named Jasmine. He has installed Jasmine in an apartment just above Gran’s (Gran is the aforementioned matriarch, Madame May, a woman “no one in this family has ever got the better of”), and you can imagine the misadventures that ensue with Dad’s much-feared and revered mother living on one floor and his pert-bottomed mistress just above.

Dad is an unremitting misogynist, for whom women are shrews, vixens, or turtledoves, whereas men – oh, heroic, misunderstood men! – are like the mighty Yangtse River. They are maligned and vilified, their urgent sexual needs not understood, their contribution to society absolute. His character is perhaps best summed up in this section, which combines both his sexual indiscretions and his world view:

“Dad gave her a couple of savage thrusts. He felt extremely aggrieved. It was hard just being human, let alone being a man. It was ever thus. He was one of the workhorses of this life, always needing to do the hard graft. He was fated to be the doormat, working himself to the bone to satisfy his mistress, and so give his old mother a good night’s sleep. Saints and sages were always lonely and misunderstood, always put upon, always working.”

Poor fellow.

And things only get worse for Dad when his lives and lies start to close in on one another after he faints mid-passion in Jasmine’s apartment. An inclination towards both sexual and gastronomical excess is taking its toll on his heart, and he ends up centre stage in a hospital bed, with the women in his life tending to him. Even though both his wife and his mistress are catering to his every need, he is still overcome with self-pity; he’s an unlikeable character alright, but one of this novel’s great achievements is to make you want to know what happens to him even though he is so repellent that you surely wouldn’t have minded too dearly if the heart attack he had in the throes of his passion with Jasmine had been fatal.

The main characters are all brilliantly developed: the brother who left the family and the village behind and is Dad’s main source of resentment has private sorrows of his own, and the moment when the two men realise that all their life they thought the other had everything while they were hard-done-by in comparison is achingly beautiful. At the centre of this revelation – though not present for it – is Gran, who loved her children by trying to make them respectable according to what she perceived as their own particular talents. So blinded by her own experience of being looked down on, she put the family reputation before the happiness of her children, thinking the latter would follow from the former. Gran’s misjudgement is heartbreaking not only because of the wasted years of her children, but also because of the sacrifice we learn she made herself in order to “keep up appearances”.

If the main character is Dad, and his mother is Gran, then you might wonder with good reason who the narrator, Xingxing, is, for she is never present at any of the scenes that she narrates. In fact, we learn very little about Xingxing apart from one vital revelation: she spends the entire period of the narrative in a psychiatric asylum. I was expecting there to be some explanation for how she came to be there, and for her character to be developed alongside the others, but there is no such disclosure. At first I was a little taken aback by this, and then realised that this is part of the originality of the novel: we think all the family secrets are being revealed to us, but they are not. If you should wonder how Xingxing manages to know so much about the family affairs and events that happened in her absence or before her birth, she tells us subtly yet repeatedly: comments such as “That son-of-a-bitch Zhong broke down. Tears poured down his face, Dad told me”, “Later she told me: ‘But this time he’d gone too far. It was a matter of principle’”, and “That may have been Dad’s view, but Mum had another take on it” reveal how Xingxing came to know so much, and at times she even deliberately reports on the extensive investigation she undertook to compile the family history: “To properly get to the bottom of all this, I needed to ask every one of the people involved, without missing anyone out.”

The relationships are what this book is built on: the squabbles between the middle-aged siblings, the rampant misogyny of Dad and his gang of boozing buddies, and the tensions between spouses and lovers are superb, with the dialogues being particularly well translated. Indeed, the colourful language in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of the things that makes it so distinctive and so enjoyable. Harman conveys some of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Chinese (when Dad’s driver curses pedestrians, we are told that he “stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors”), as well as allowing some of its proverbs and sayings to come through in the English (I especially liked “you can’t fill a belly without belching”).

In amongst the comings and goings of the clan, we find comments on both history and modernity: Dad reflects on the overcrowded town that “everyone had more cash to spend and nothing to spend it on. They lived in this piddling little town, where walking from East Street to West Street only took fifteen minutes, yet every family insisted on getting a car, then spent their time weaving in and out of traffic jams in the clogged-up streets,” and Madame May opines that “The younger generation really had no idea how devastating it had been, decades ago, when she took her old father’s arm and led him out of the gates.” This is a family saga rooted in its place and time, and if the narrator is distanced from it all, then perhaps this reflects Yan’s own need, described in the foreword, to “move to the other side of the world to write about my hometown.”

This is a rollicking, engaging saga of a story: I enjoyed it from cover to cover, and I thoroughly recommend it. Come back next week to find out how Madame May and the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste factory got their names, why The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was born out of Yan Ge’s anger, and how Nicky Harman translated a rhyming couplet imbued with classical allusions that reveals the biggest of all the family secrets to the reader, but not to the characters. You won’t want to miss this one!

Review copy of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan provided by Balestier Press