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Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

love anger madness

Translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur

My final read for August’s Women in Translation month was a book of three novellas, Love, Anger, Madness: a Haitian triptych. Knowing nothing about Haiti – expect that voodoo comes from there, I was fascinated to learn more. I didn’t know what to expect from it really – and had never heard of the author at all.

“Fear is a vice that takes root once it is cultivated. It takes time to recover from it.”

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was born in 1916 in the Haitian capital, part of what was called the ‘occupation generation’ – it was the year after the US invaded Haiti. She grew up in a tumultuous period in Haiti history, and this is very much reflected in these three novellas. In 1968 following the publication of this novel and the resulting furore Marie Vieux-Chauvet was exiled to the United States.

These stories depict families and artists struggling to survive, find love and safety in Haiti while living under some of the most terrifying and hostile conditions.

The first novella, Love is told in the form of a journal, by Claire, the eldest of three sisters, who has never married. Her younger two sisters, and her brother-in-law share the old family home with Claire – but there is jealousy and resentment at the heart of this family. As the novel opens, Félicia; the middle sister married to Jean Luze is in the early stages of pregnancy. The youngest sister Annette only twenty-two, is openly conducting an affair with her handsome brother-in-law. Claire is driven to distraction, not at the betrayal of her other sister, but because she too has developed a passion for Jean Luze. In time, Claire becomes devoted to her little nephew when he comes along, and as Félicia becomes more and more fragile and less present in the house, Claire begins to feel as if he is almost her own. With Jean Luze soon tired of Annette, this youngest sister, vain and self-serving, leaves, marrying someone else – and Claire’s fantasies about her brother-in-law increase.

“Jean Luze plays a record in the living room. The notes penetrate me as he listens to them. My senses begin to vibrate so much that I rush to lock myself in my room. The sound explodes like a scream and then lingers in a caress. The entire house is suffused with it. What a hymn to life, this work born of suffering.”

This story of domestic disharmony takes place within a small, frightened community. The commandant, whose jail is across the street from Claire’s house, holds the community in thrall. We are witness to cruelty, fear and tales of sexual violence metered out to neighbours. Claire can hear the screams from her room.

In Anger, we meet the Normil family – with the story is told from multiple perspectives. One morning this large middle-class family wake to find militia men in black uniforms driving stakes into the ground around their home. This act of land seizure terrifies and intimidates the family, who have been proud landowners for many years. Rose, the pretty twenty-year old daughter becomes central to the crimes committed against this family and focus of much of the anger. For a month Rose must submit to the attentions of one of the militia leaders. Rose seeing herself as a martyr, goes to her fate in scenes which make for very uncomfortable reading. Meanwhile her mother, father, brothers and grandfather each deal differently with the unfolding situation. Their anger manifesting in various, destructive ways.

“Louis Normil felt his father’s anger rising in him. The shock was what saved him. He instinctively tilted his head to take his leave of the lawyer and made for the exit. He thought he caught a glint of mockery in the guard’s eyes, but he paid him no mind and went to work.”

The third novella Madness is harder to talk about without completely ruining it. It is that shortest of the three novellas, and the one I liked the least. The story is narrated by a young poet; Rene. Trapped for days inside his house, he watches ‘the devils’ as he calls them through the shutters of the windows, as they rampage their way around the town. There is a body in the street outside and flies have started to gather on it. Opening the door to two friends, brothers and fellow poets Rene encourages them inside to hide from ‘the devils’ who are invading their town. Isolated and terrified – Rene is suffering from a lack of food and water, stealing himself for a last stand against authority.

Despite the fact not all of Vieux-Chauvet’s characters are likeable this triptych remains sympathetic. It is however, also brutal and uncompromising in its depiction of Haitian society, and the reality of a country in turmoil. It is brave and terrifyingly honest.

It really was no wonder that I needed a palate cleanser after this book – which runs to almost 400 pages – and began reading something entirely different a couple of hours after finishing it.

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cof

Translated from French by Sandra Smith

I have been wondering how I would review David Golder for several days. I enjoyed this novel – but it was an enjoyment that felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Irène Némirovsky has become better known in recent years due to the publication of her lost novel Suite Francaise, and the story surrounding its recovery. However, at the time Irène Némirovsky began to write Suite Francaise she was already a well-known writer. David Golder was her second novel, first published in 1929 when its author was just 26, it was a big success. In more recent years the novel has been viewed quite controversially, due its depiction of Jewish characters, some of who could be said to be caricatures. Here we have wealthy Jewish businessmen sacrificing everything in the pursuit of more money, and an elderly Jewish man who walks on tip-toe to save shoe leather. It is such portrayals that have led many people to accuse Irène Némirovsky of anti-Semitism. Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, she lived most of her life in France, she wrote in French and had converted to Catholicism. None of this was enough to save her under the race laws imposed by the Nazis who occupied France in 1940. Many people seem to believe – and this seems likely to me – that Némirovsky’s antipathy towards Jewishness was turned more inwards than outwards. She did have a famously terrible relationship with her mother. None of that makes reading David Golder any less uncomfortable – and yet, as I said I enjoyed it.

Némirovsky’s characters are so well crafted, that they become far more than caricatures, she is writing about capitalism, the reckless pursuit of money that was so prevalent in the twenties. Despite identifying as a Frenchwoman first and foremost, throughout her writing Némirovsky returns to her roots in the communities and people she portrays. Perhaps in this we see something of the complexity of the woman she was.

David Golder is an ageing businessman – born into poverty in Russia, he has amassed a great fortune. The days of easy money are numbered, and the financial markets of the world are starting to crumble, business is bad. As the novel opens Golder is refusing to help Marcus; his partner of twenty-six years, who is facing bankruptcy.

Days later Marcus is dead, having killed himself – and Golder visits his widow – who he can’t help but notice is wearing an enormous pearl necklace wound three times around her neck. Golder is a hard man; his success has been at the expense of others. Golder gets a train to travel to Biarritz where his wife Gloria and daughter Joyce live in luxurious splendour.

“ ‘Oh!’ Joyce said suddenly, ‘it’s just that I have to have everything on earth otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. ‘I don’t know how others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…’”

Joyce is Golder’s one Achilles heel – he adores her, and Joyce uses that. Like her mother, Joyce is only interested in the money that her father can give her – and he gives her thousands. Joyce runs around with her boyfriends spending money like water – careless and superficial. Gloria is particularly dreadful, she cares only for the money her husband brings in, she has her own life, her own friends and lovers and no relationship with her husband.

Golder’s health is failing – as he travels through the night to Biarritz – he experiences chest pain. In the loneliness of the long dark night, Golder is briefly afraid – vulnerable, feeling his increasing age.

“The thick darkness flowed into his throat with soft, insistent pressure, as if earth was being pushed into his mouth, as it was into his… the dead man’s…Marcus…And when he thought finally of Marcus, when he finally allowed himself to be taken over by the image, the memory of death, the cemetery, the yellow clay soaked with rain, the long roots clinging like serpents deep inside the grave, he suddenly felt such a tremendous need, such a desperate desire for light, to see familiar, ordinary things round him… his clothing swaying from the hook on the door… the newspapers on the little table…the bottle of mineral water… that he forgot about everything else.”

In Biarritz, in the sumptuous apartment he owns there, Golder is taken ill again. Fearing that her pot of gold may run dry Gloria takes steps to ensure her husband is not persuaded to stop work – for as soon as he does – the money will stop. It is for Joyce though, ultimately that Golder continues to chase money – during days of increasing financial insecurity.

Némirovsky shines a light on a world she would have seen something of through her father – a wealthy businessman in Russia – he had started again as a banker when the family fled the revolution for France in 1917.

There is a chilling atmosphere of dark, claustrophobia throughout the novel. As Golder recalls incidents from his past he travels through Europe, retracing in part the steps he took as a young man setting out to make his fortune. He revisits an old Jewish neighbourhood with an old friend, and finally nearing the end of his life, meets a poor young man, who like he himself once did, is setting out in hopes of a better life.

davidgolder

Némirovsky’s portrait of Golder is not without sympathy, in his ageing ill health – as he struggles to make money for the daughter he loves but who cares not one jot for him, he is vulnerable and rather tragic. However, in her portrayal of Gloria and Joyce – she is merciless.

This became a short though hugely thought-provoking novel for me during this #Witmonth – Némirovsky is a woman I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by.

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the seventh cross

Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The most powerful and important accounts of people living under terrifying regimes are undoubtedly those written during the times they depict – whether they be fictional or non-fictional accounts. The Seventh Cross is such a novel – written in France after the author had fled Nazi Germany, it was finally published in 1942, after the author and her family had had to flee the Nazis again. Despite being a novel, this must surely still be an important historical document. It also happens to be a hugely compelling read. Virago’s re-issue of this German classic feels to me like a timely warning from time – showing us how easy the lure of fascism was for some.

It depicts the insidious rise of a regime, the daily realities for ordinary people. Fear is unspoken and tangible, and people disappear and then reappear – and everyone is living by new rules. Criminals of the regime – communists for a start have already started to be rounded up, what this novel shows is that local people would have been aware of the camps, made uneasy by them perhaps – though ignorant of the true horrors.

It is a few years after Hitler has taken power in Germany (I assumed 1936/7 due to the mention of unrest in Spain) and seven men escape from Westhofen concentration camp.

“Probably no trees ever cut down in our country were as unique, as strange as the seven plane trees growing at the gable end of Barracks III. Their crowns, for a reason to be revealed at a later time, had previously been cut off and a board had been nailed across each of the tree trunks at shoulder height. From afar they looked like seven crosses.”

It is a disgrace to the camp officers for such a thing to happen. Fahrenberg, the camp commandant is under intense pressure – he vows that all the men will be caught within seven days. Interestingly, Seghars portrays him – increasingly throughout the novel – as man losing his grip – he loses sleep, becomes obsessed with the men’s capture, he knows his days in charge are numbered.

Six of the men are captured quite quickly, and made examples of, cruelly and with evil relish by the camp officers. However, the seventh man George Heisler manages to slip through the net, crawling on his belly through mud, stealing clothes, hiding in churches, the desperate man feels his pursuers are only ever a few steps behind.

“An uncontrollable wish, stronger than any fear, or hunger and thirst, and stronger than the damned thumping in his hand, which had long ago bled through the rag: to just keep lying there – after all, night would come soon. And the fog was already providing him with cover; the sun was just a pale disc behind the haze covering his face. They wouldn’t be searching for him here during the night. He’s have some peace.”

George is a changed man, just a few years ago he was a handsome, confident man, a bit selfish, he didn’t always treat his friends well. He had let down a friend he had been living with, left his wife had taken up with another girl – one of many we get the impression. People from his old life would barely recognise George now, the years in a concentration camp have taken their toll, he is already looking a lot older. He is less certain of himself now, less assured, he carries the calming words of fellow camp mate and escapee Wallau with him on his perilous journey. Who – if anyone, can George trust? Unknown to George the years have changed those close to him too – his brother is now an SS officer; a former lover turns him from her door in terror. Despite his flaws, maybe in some way because of them, George is a wholly sympathetic character, I was rather glad he wasn’t some kind of two-dimensional angel. We can all sympathise with someone hurt, hunted alone and afraid.

Rumours of the escape are murmured by the people living within sound of the camp’s sirens, soon the escape is being talked about on the radio. George’s former in-laws are worried about what it will mean for them. His ex-wife is certain he won’t turn up there – but both she and her father an ageing paper hanger, are taken in for questioning, and watched closely after their release.

Injured, desperate and with time running out, George slowly makes his way back to the town where he used to live – in the hope that his old friends and contacts help him get away. Meanwhile for the officers of the Nazi regime capturing the last man becomes a matter of pride.

Told from a variety of perspectives – Seghers paints a picture of a country held in the grip of terrible times, but where not everyone is happy to bow to the fear instilled by the Gestapo. We meet extraordinary people, who know full well what helping someone like George might mean – but who look the danger full in the face.

“Only once in her life had Liesel ever had anything to do with the police. At the time, she was a child, ten or eleven years old. One of her brothers had got into trouble; maybe it was the one who later died in the war, for there was never any mention of it in the family afterwards. It had been buried with him in Flanders. But the fear they had all struggled with back then was still in Liesel’s blood today. A fear that had nothing to do with a bad conscience; it was a poor people’s fear, a chicken’s fear under a hawk, a fear of being persecuted by the state. An ancient fear that better defines to whom the state belongs than any constitutions or history books. But now Liesel resolved to fight tooth and claw to protect her family, with cunning and deceit.”

This was a fascinating, compelling read for #WITmonth – which has put Anna Seghers firmly on my radar – I really must read more of her work soon.

witmonth18

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cof

Translated by Richard and Lucia Cunningham

In my search for more vintage women writers in translation, I was given the name of Maria Luisa Bombal. Her most creative writing period appears to have been the 1930s and 40s, though this collection seems to have first been published in 1982 – for those following my A Century of Books, publication dates are not always easy to sort out.

I don’t always do well with South American literature because of the magical realism aspect so many writers seem to employ, I have never been fond of magical realism. Still, I decided to give Maria Luisa Bombal a try – and despite the fact there is a little magical realism here too, I enjoyed this slight little volume. A little online research – about a writer I knew nothing about, told me that Maria Luisa Bombal was one of the first Spanish American writers to move away from the realist tradition of storytelling. It seems she paved the way for so many other writers who followed her. Bombal’s writing is beautiful, full of glorious images and she uses these repeated images to great effect.

This slim collection contains just five stories – two of them, the first story The Final Mist and the final story; New Islands, are longer and more substantial. The second story The Tree is apparently one of her most famous.

In, The Final Mist a woman creates her own dream life, in a story where the lines between realty and fantasy become a little blurred. Just a few months after his first wife died, a young woman marries her cousin Daniel, returning with him to his hacienda. Her life quickly becomes one of stifling routine, the relationship with her husband distant and unfulfilling.

“Tomorrow we will return to the country. The day after, I will attend mass in the village with my mother-in-law. Then during lunch Daniel will talk to us about the work on the hacienda. Afterwards I will visit the greenhouse, the aviary, the orchard. Before dinner I will doze beside the fireplace or read the local newspapers. Following dinner, I will amuse myself with the fire – producing small conflagrations by carelessly stirring the coals. Very soon, the conversation will dwindle, give way to an oppressive silence, and Daniel will nosily fit the bars against the doors. The we will go to sleep. And the next day will be the same, and so on for a year, for ten; and it will be the same until old age robs me of any right to love and desire, until my body withers and my face wrinkles and I am ashamed to show myself without artifice in the light of the sun.”
(The Final Mist)

Bombal uses the recurring images of rain, mist and wind to help create the dreamworld this unhappy woman weaves around her. On a visit to the city, one night unable to sleep she leaves the house, and takes a walk – she has a wordless, passionate encounter with a stranger. It becomes the most memorable night of her life – the memory of which seems to sustain her for years to come. The possible twist – suggested by Bombal is what makes this story so successful.

In, The Tree we have another unhappily married woman, who through listening to a series of pieces of music reflects upon her life and marriage. The tree outside her window seems to act as a screen to the realities of her situation, so when the tree is finally felled, and the room flooded with unaccustomed light, the woman makes the decision to leave.

“All night long she could hear the rain thrashing, splashing through the leaves of the rubber tree like a thousand tiny rivers sliding down imaginary canals. All night long she heard the ancient trunk creak and moan.”
(The Tree)

Braids is a rather odd little piece – in which the author reflects on the fabled strength and importance of a woman’s hair. It contains the story of two sisters – one of who takes care of the family hacienda, the other goes to the city. Fire comes to the forest surrounding the hacienda – and the fate of the trees and the woman at the hacienda are linked because we are told her hair and the trees share the same roots.

If that was a little strange, The Unknown is stranger still in my opinion. A pirate ship trapped in the vortex of a whirlpool, lies at the bottom of the sea. The captain and his men seem totally unaware of where they are. Chico a young boy voices his concerns:

“‘Captain,’ the boy said quietly, ‘have you notices that our feet leave no tracks in this sand?’
‘Nor do the sails throw any shadow.’ The captain added in a dry, cruel whisper. Then his anger seeming to abate before the boy’s naïve and puzzled gaze, he laid his rough hand on Chico’s shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go, son. The tide will be in soon.’”
(The Unknown)

What meaning lies behind this story – I really couldn’t say.

new islandsNew Islands is a story with some similarity to The Final Mist – there is a long-held obsession and a hacienda. A hunting party gather at the hacienda of Yolanda and her brother Frederico. One member of the party Juan Miguel develops a passionate obsession for Yolanda, following her around, forcing her to kiss him. Meanwhile another member of the party, a man of late middle age – was engaged to Yolanda thirty years earlier – but she broke off the engagement suddenly and with no explanation. Juan Miguel muses on Yolanda’s age – she doesn’t appear to be the age of her former fiancé. Meanwhile – some new islands have emerged mysteriously out of the lake waters nearby which the group go to look at. Yolanda is a mystery – particularly to Juan Miguel – and after the few days at the hacienda are over – he heads back to the city with the mystery unsolved. The new islands sink slowly back into the lake.

I really enjoyed these unusual stories, Maria Luisa Bombal is a fascinating writer. I need to find to find out what else of hers is available in English translation.

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cof

Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

July’s offering from the Asymptote book club was I didn’t Talk by Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher, which I read at the end of July, so I could review it for the beginning of #WITmonth.

Beatriz Bracher is the latest of the new, strong voices the Asymptote book club has introduced me to. Bracher was born in Săo Paulo, she grew up living under a military dictatorship. It is clear that her upbringing in that environment has informed her writing.

Gustavo is a professor who has just retired and is preparing to leave Sao Paulo for the quiet of the countryside. As he sorts through his papers, Gustavo is assaulted by the ghosts of the past.

In 1970 Gustavo and his brother-in-law Armando were arrested by the authorities and tortured. Later Gustavo was released, hurt but able to continue his work as a teacher. Armando was killed, and no one could ever be really sure that Gustavo didn’t talk. ‘I didn’t talk’ he tells himself – as he told his family at the time. Yet, the torture never really stopped – Gustavo has been haunted by this period of his life ever since.

His wife Eliana had been away when he was arrested – she died of pneumonia – leaving him to raise their daughter. Eliana had died before her husband could tell her he hadn’t talked – died away from him in another country – a loss he has carried ever since. He remembers a time when his daughter had liked to walk happily through the cemetery imagining the lives the dead had lived, death held no fear for her. The child had inevitably wondered why her mother’s name wasn’t there.

“I wished to conserve for what little time I could my happy ballerina for the dead. Dancing for the memory of the dead. I said, it’s true, you’re right, we’ll find your mother’s grave. The next Sunday I took a box of coloured chalk and wrote Eliana’s name and dates on the grave under which Armando, Dona Esther, and my father-in-law Dom Estevăo, lay buried. Ligia drew little flowers and hearts.”

Gustavo has lived his life rather on the fringes, ever since 1970 – always there has been that unspoken accusation – that his release was the result of a betrayal. There is a sense that Gustavo’s life has been stunted by this incident.

“Look, I was tortured, and they say I named a comrade who was later killed by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch – I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn’t talk.”

The novel is told in several voices, Gustavo’s first-person narrative is the main one. Yet alongside that are fragments of Gustavo’s brother José’s unpublished, autobiographical novel, his own notes and educational reports from earlier in his career and short extracts from other writers. In José’s writings, we get glimpses of the brothers’ upbringing, the kind of lives they lived growing up. Gustavo remembers his wife, his friendship with Armando, and what he knew back then and what he didn’t understand or didn’t question. These voices help to form a kind of collective chorus – in the midst of a story that is full of silences. There is so much that exists in the past, things not said or merely implied.

There is an ambiguity to Gustavo’s storytelling – not everything is clear – memories are fragile and emotional.

I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it – I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the characters, but I couldn’t work out why– and I like a stronger sense of place than I felt existed here. What Bracher does do well though, is to portray a life lived in the shadow of one terrible place in time.

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mde

Translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole

Last month’s Asymptote book club book was the tiny novella The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Hilbig was an East German writer of stories and poetry – and certainly the prose in this little book, is that of a poet. There are throughout this novella passages that the reader stops to re-read – or perhaps would like to read out loud. This story only came to be published after his death – though it was written I am told back in the 1980s or 90s. I knew nothing about Hilbig before this book came into my life – though I read somewhere that this is his most accessible work.

Hilbig himself is a fascinating character. In the 1970s he moved to the then GDR – Hilbig would have been a young man when the Berlin wall was erected. He had spent time in the military, later working as a tool maker and in the construction industry. It was after moving to East Germany that Hilbig became a writer. He was later given a visa to move to West Germany – I don’t know how usual this was. In a blog post on the Asymptote journal website I was interested to read how Hilbig struggled with different aspects of both East and West Germany.

So on with the book- there really isn’t an enormous amount I feel I can say about this beautifully written novella. You will be relieved to hear this review will be shorter than most.

The Tidings of the Trees is a novella about politics – not overtly so perhaps, everything is shrouded in poetic imagery – but at the bottom of it lie the politics of the past. In the present is the wall, and the isolation it creates.

“We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside … outside everything rushed to its doom. Meanwhile we’ve always lived in the past. For us the passage of time existed only on some withered calendar page.”

Where once there was a beautiful wood there now stands an ash smothered field covered in heaps of rubbish. A young man named Waller; a writer, encounters the strange, haunting figures of the garbagemen.

“No one, I said, could know more about the past, no one could be deeper in the know than the garbagemen. But no one asked them, for in the eyes of the world they were the ones with the least say. And if asked, they’d probably have seen themselves in the same way, perhaps they ultimately acquiesced in their somnambulistic doings on the terrain of ash…In actuality, they might think, it’s we, out here, who seal and perfect the process of forgetfulness the townspeople struggle with. Yet we ourselves can never forget… and that is the punchline of the story.”

These desperate men eke out an existence of sorts by rooting through their country’s rubbish. Waller is fascinated by them – he imagines them digging through their country’s history too.

Hilbig, uses some extraordinary imagery in The Tidings of the Trees, mannequins in a variety of poses litter the garbage site. Waller sits in a small corrugated metal hut at the side of the tip, watching the garbagemen and trying to write. He remembers a time when he was younger, when a road he walked along frequently was lined with cherry trees. Those trees are all gone now.

“Now that I’d remembered the road with the cherry trees, I set out for the area nearly every evening. I began going in pursuit of my memories: even in earlier days the perpetual flight from town had been a sort of ritual for me; as I walked those paths I underwent a visible transformation, the whole thing soon becoming an evening exercise in disappearance.”

I continue to enjoy my Asymptote book club subscription, as it introduces me to a variety of voices I would otherwise have not heard. Hilbig weaves imagery rich in meaning through his glorious prose. I read this in a sitting, but perhaps I should have read it more slowly, there is a lot to appreciate in it. There is a beautiful, elegiac quality to Hilbig’s prose that at times becomes quite haunting.

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chillibeanpasteclan

Translated by Nicky Harman

Last month’s book from the Asymptote book club was The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, the story of a family in a fictional town in West China. This novel is possibly my first experience with Chinese literature.

In her foreword to this novel, Yan Ge explains how the town she grew up in, no longer exists as it was, so much change has come to the region. She describes being swamped by nostalgia as she wrote about Pingle Town a town based very much on the one she grew up in. So, there is certainly an autobiographical element to this novel, though where exactly that starts and ends I wasn’t sure.

The Duan-Xue family are the owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, the younger of two adult sons; Xue Shengqiang is the current owner. He is married to Anqin and has a daughter Xingxing. Oddly, it is Xingxing who is our narrator, although she is never present in the story, but more of that later.

Shengqiang’s position is an enviable one, he has worked his way up through the family business and now he is the boss.

“It was just an ordinary April morning in Pingle Town. Dad had been around for at least forty springtimes and could describe it with his eye shut. The trees suddenly so green they made your eyes sore, the birds and the bees going at it hammer and tongs, the lurid yellow rapeseed blossom, the blazing scarlet azaleas, even the air smelled fertile, he thought sourly. It certainly brought out the crowds, and the streets heaved with day-trippers, songsters, card-players, people out to make a quick buck, and more besides. And of course there were the couples, making out, and breaking up.”

He remembers the time when he was first inducted into the family business, stirring the drums of chili bean paste buying cigarettes to give to his – shifu (foreman) – the man teaching him his craft. He now has a wife and daughter, a driver to take him around the town, and a mistress living in an apartment above his mother’s. He still gets together with his best friend Zhong and his “bros.” He seems to be living a perfect life. He is living in a town he knows well, inside out, yet it has changed beyond all recognition.

“There were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000 or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the bucket of paint, and all the buildings on and off, the four main roads were covered in white paint. The looked like they had been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, flour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar even the scissor-menders and knife grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished.”

Now Shengqiang’s mother, straight talking matriarch is about to celebrate her eightieth birthday. Gran – as she is referred to throughout the novel – is to be given a wonderful party to celebrate her milestone birthday. Her middle-aged children begin to gather to make the necessary preparations. Shengqiang’s elder brother, a university teacher arrives, and Shengqiang’s hackles almost immediately rise. There are tensions between the brothers and old resentments are brought to the surface as Uncle starts to take charge. The brothers’ sister Coral also arrives to share in the preparations, and it soon emerges that her marriage to Liu Qukang is in trouble.

In the midst of all his family obligations, Shengqiang struggles – not really very well – to keep his mistress happy, and his wife in the dark. However, in the end the biggest secrets that are revealed come from Gran herself.

asymptoteI had really looked forward to reading The Chili Bean Paste Clan, but it rather underwhelmed me. This is a slightly larger type paperback and at 276 pages it feels a bit overlong. My one main problem with the novel – and it might not be a big thing for other readers – is the narration. The narrator is as I said the main character’s daughter – however she is never present within the narrative itself – there is a suggestion that she has had some sort of mental health issue – and has gone away, but she is never present in the action, or interacts with any of the other characters. This feels a bit odd, especially as she seems to know far more about her father’s sex life than any young daughter should.

While I didn’t love this novel, I certainly didn’t dislike it, I gave it a solid three stars over on Goodreads, and I found many aspects of Chinese small-town life to be fascinating.

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