The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge is my September choice in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. As the title suggests a family features strongly in this Chinese novel, set in a small town as the family gathers to celebrate Gran’s eightieth birthday. Secrets are revealed, truths exposed and even the grandmother has some surprises to reveal.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan
Pingle Town is a small town in West China. It has four streets: North, South, East and West. It has grown recently, becoming more prosperous, partly because of the success of the Chilli Bean Paste Factory, but also sharing the increasing prosperity of China as a whole. The Factory is owned by the Duan-Xue clan, directed by Shengqiang but everything is controlled by his mother the matriarch.
The novel is narrated by Shengqiang’s daughter, who is in a psychiatric hospital, but that is all we know about her. For the most part we follow Shengqiang, called Dad by the narrator. He is one of the most selfish, oaf-fish and unaware main characters in fiction. He gradually understands what is going on around him, having assumed he knew it all and that he was in charge.
He has a mistress, Jasmine, and is married. The widowed Gran has three children and he is her youngest. His older brother, Uncle, is not married, and is a professor of Maths in a university some way away. His single state is a cause of consternation. Aunty Coral is trying to divorce her husband. Jasmine falls pregnant. Shengqiang’s wife threatens divorce. Matters come to a head as the siblings arrange a party for the 80thbirthday of their mother.
Shengqiang is motivated by his appetite for sex, food and drink. He also likes controlling people and uses money to do this. His mother manipulates him to her own ends, believing that family reputation is important for the success of the Chilli Bean Paste Factory.
This novel is lively and perceptive about corrosive aspects of family relationships. It sagged a little as Dad went on yet another bender with his bros, or found another young woman irresistible. I found it frustrating that the narrator’s part in all of this was never explained, and did not appear to have a role beyond reporting.
But as an exploration of a small town with its long histories, its rivalries and friendships, it was enjoyable. The description of food, a focus of much of Dad’s activities, was splendid. Almost every chapter has some delightful description of a meal. Here is an example.
There was a steaming, simmering hotpot of ribs, white fish head, chilli peppers and green Sichuan pepper, to which they gradually added pieces of swamp eel, brains and meatballs, potato and shitake mushrooms, and slices of bamboo shoots. (199)
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, originally published in 2013. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman and published by Balestier Press in 2018. 276pp.
I was sent this book from the Asymptote book club.
Winner of the English PEN Translation Award.
Women in translation series
Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.
Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.
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