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You might imagine that I thought long and hard in choosing my best untranslated book, because China has so many writers and so little of their work reaches the West, at least in English. But I plumped without any hesitation for Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. (The title in Chinese is 《我们家》Our Family.)
This is a family drama that manages to be both warm and funny, and barbed and irreverent. The novel is set in a (fictional) small Sichuan town in twenty-first century China, where Gran’s impending eightieth birthday celebrations are the trigger for growing tensions between the family’s middle-aged siblings. Events take an unexpected turn on the day itself—when secrets from everyone’s past are revealed, including that of the matriarch herself. Yan Ge is a well-established writer of young adult fiction. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is her first excursion into adult fiction, and it is an extraordinarily clever one.
Having read large numbers of Chinese books that, for one reason or another, are never going to be translated, I feel obliged to say what this book is not: it is not a tear-jerker, it is not meandering and flowery, violent or plain gross. It has a heart, but doesn’t wear it on its sleeve. And it is blessedly short: it would make around 83,000 words in translation. So what is it? And what are its literary influences? The arts activist, Ou Ning, who introduced me to Yan Ge, compares The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to Ba Jin’s classic work The Family. Yan Ge has studied in the USA and says that Jonathan Franzen has been a strong influence on her writing. Personally, I get the same kind of enjoyment from The Clan as I do from a Jane Austen novel. I particularly like Yan Ge’s pen portraits. Here’s how the book opens:
In Dad’s cell phone, Gran was listed as ‘Mother.' From time to time, ‘Mother’ popped up on screen at peculiarly inappropriate moments. Sometimes it would be during a meeting at the factory when Dad was trying to call the laughing, chattering salesgirls to order. Or he was out drinking with friends, sharing three bottles of maotai liquor between five of them, the air thick with smoke. Or, worse still, Dad would be in bed, either with Mom or else some young woman of his acquaintance and, just when things were hotting up, A Pretty Sprig of Jasmine would ring out. Dad would feel himself going soft and, when his cell phone proved incontrovertibly that it was Gran, all the fight would go out of him. Floating gently to earth like a hen’s feather, he’d pick up the phone, walk out into the corridor, clear his throat and respond: ‘Yes, Mother’. [my translation]
That’s Dad in a nutshell: lynch pin of the clan, factory boss, and dutiful son to his elderly mother… but with all-too-obvious human failings. He likes his pleasures, drinks and smokes too much, and is blithely unfaithful to his wife.
When I first read The Clan, I was struck by the unsentimental accuracy with which Yan Ge describes the middle-aged siblings, in what turns out to be a distinctly dysfunctional family. Her descriptions of their squabbles are pitch-perfect. What makes the book a joy to read is the comedy she derives from them. As the pressures build, Dad feels increasingly put upon; he reacts with colourfully rude, sotto voce, comments, while on the surface he remains the emollient and utterly capable brother and son.
The family shenanigans in the build-up to the birthday celebrations could be taking place anywhere in the world, yet the novel is firmly rooted in its West China small town setting, There are wonderfully evocative descriptions of the making of the legendary Sichuan chilli bean paste, whose fragrance stirred sexual longings in Dad when he was an adolescent boy.
In spite of the fun and games, The Clan has an underlying vein of bitterness. We, the readers, gradually become aware of the grinding hardship of life before the family business really took off. Dad too learns some painful truths—his elder brother and sister eventually tell him that Gran forced them into unhappy marriages in a ruthless attempt to further the family fortunes. The old matriarch has a final shock in store for the family on the big day itself… but it would unfair to let that cat out of the bag here.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is not so far being translated into English, but French and German translations are already in prospect, so readers there should be able to read it for themselves quite soon.