Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan should come with a warning on the cover: “contents may cause readers to break into a sweat and consume unhealthy amounts of Laoganma spicy chilli crisp.” The setting for this complicated and often humorous story of the Duan-Xue clan, a family consumed by resentments, betrayals, matriarchal machinations, and sibling rivalry, is Pingle, a small town in Sichuan province, which the author tells us in the foreword is essentially the town she grew up in.
The narrator of the story, who is the absent daughter of the main protagonist Xue Shengqiang, describes Pingle as a “piddling little town, where walking from East Street to West Street only took fifteen minutes.” And Pingle was all about mala, the numbing heat born of mixing chilli bean paste and Sichuan peppers. The narrator explains that the “townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder.” And for Xue Shengqiang, mala is a key thread in his story––the sweat it induces, the sex it inspires, and the fiery temper and constant stream of expletives it arouses. They’re all connected. As the omniscient narrator explains it, “Dad used to pepper his love-making with a lot of swearing.”
It seems that Shengqiang has slept with nearly every woman in town.
The family soap opera centers on Shengqiang, who runs the family’s Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory, and his mother, Gran (called Gran because her granddaughter tells the story), whose 80th birthday is fast approaching.
We learn that the narrator-daughter is in a psychiatric hospital, but we aren’t told why. Although this positions her as an unreliable narrator, she seems the most level-headed and sane character in the story.
Shengqiang, the youngest of three siblings, was pushed into the family business at a young age by Gran, while his older brother went off to university and later became a professor. His sister, Coral, left Pingle to pursue a glamorous TV career. Shengqiang blames his older brother for his “current position as the family’s doormat.” Having remained in Pingle to work in the factory and take care of Gran––the controlling and demanding matriarch of the clan––Shengqiang yells, curses, drinks, smokes, and philanders his way to becoming a successful factory manager and VIP in town.
During the decades between his sexual awakening at 17 while stirring vats of fermenting chilli peppers to the time of Gran’s 80th birthday, it seems that Shengqiang had slept with nearly every woman in town. During a nostalgic moment Shengqiang observes, “There were so many, too many to remember.” He repeatedly cheats on his wife and his mistress.
We come to learn that pretty much everyone in the Duan-Xue family has slept with someone they shouldn’t have, and lied about it either directly or indirectly, and nothing is really as it appears to be. Gran nonetheless is inclined to make pronouncements on the meaning of “family.” The first thing Gran taught Shengqiang was that “the family sticks together.” Later, Gran told him “[n]o one is true to you the way your family is true to you, no one” and “you can never trust outsiders.” The centrality of family is further captured in the heading of the cast of characters page: “The Family and Other People.” Much of the family drama gets aired, and more or less resolved as the three middle-aged siblings reunite in Pingle, along with their families, to plan Gran’s big 80th birthday bash.
Nicky Harman’s translation is exceptional.
Just a few pages into the novel, it’s clear that Nicky Harman’s translation is exceptional. In her translator’s note at the end of the book, we learn of Yan Ge’s outstanding English, and the collaboration between author and translator to accurately capture in English the particularities of the local dialect, its colorful idioms, and vivid vulgarities. Harman noted her challenge in finding a “sufficient variety of rude words” in English to express Shengqiang’s “frustrations and fury”, but also assures the readers that “the number of F words in the English is actually exactly the same as in the original Chinese.”
Although the author convincingly depicts Shengqiang, as a character he was off-putting. His endless drinking and dalliances became a bit tiresome. I did want to know more about the narrator-daughter, though. How did she end up in a psych ward? What happened? Where did her intelligence and insights come from? My sense is that her story may have been more compelling.