The Book of Birmingham is the latest title to be published by Comma Press in their cities in short fiction series which serves as an excellent introduction to some superb contemporary writers. The ultimate in armchair city tours, the series is ideal for discovering other places, other lives.
The Book of Birmingham – focusing on the second largest city in the UK after London which “sits atthe central crossroads of England, the industrial heartland of the country” – brings together short stories by some writers known to me, (Kit de Waal, Bobby Nayyar, C.D. Rose, Sharon Duggal, Kavita Bhanot), and some not, (Sibyl Ruth, Malachi McIntosh, Joel Lane, Jendella Benson, Alan Beard, Balvinder Banga). The city’s “working-class foundation is inseparable from the city’s literature, reflected in the voices of its best-known contemporary authors: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Kit de Waal, Joel Lane . . .”
We live in an increasingly polarised mad and maddening world seemingly going from bad to worse. The hunger for “how to be happy” and “how to achieve more success in life” top tips type reading fodder is countered by our apparent preference for bad news over the good, (motivated by schadenfreude, a heightened vigilance for threats thanks to a daily Media diet of disasters, shock value . . . or so the thinking goes).
If it bleeds, it leads
Sam Jordison’s series Crap Towns became a cult hit. Now he has pulled another winner out of his hat – The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad. It is an entertaining and thoroughly-researched book of alternative general knowledge. Factual and informative lists ranging across the natural world, history, popular culture, sports, food, medicine, science, economics, politics, drugs, divorce and crystal-ball gazing balls-ups are seasoned with tongue-in-cheek personal asides. It is a particularly cheering read if your own life is in the doldrums, or for some Christmas fun and games. So quiz each other and laugh when no one knows the answers: there is invariably someone worse off than you! Continue reading Review | The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad, Sam Jordison | Book of the Week
“Too poetical that about the sad. Music did that. Music hath charms. Shakespeare said. Quotations every day in the year. To be or not to be. Wisdom while you wait.” – James Joyce
“What is modernism?” was one of the questions addressed during the recent BookBlast 10×10 Tour talk held in Waterstones, Norwich, featuring Galley Beggar Press authors Alex Pheby (hailed as “the new Beckett” by Stephen Bumphrey on BBC Radio Norfolk), Paul Stanbridge and Paul Ewen.
“Modernism consists of fragments put back together to make a whole out of disunity,” was one answer, “Being aware of the text and stepping outside it,” was another . . . along with stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, dense allusions, ambiguity and a phenomenal play of words on the page.Continue reading Review | Dedalus, Chris McCabe | Book of the Week
Written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum when the UK voted to leave the EU, Robinson is essential and entertaining reading. By the end of the 19th century there were over 700 spin-off versions of Robinson Crusoe: the novel is brilliantly and succinctly revisited by Charles Boyle a.k.a. Jack Robinson in a modern-day setting.
Random thoughts from an offshore island
“James Joyce considered Robinson’s grandfather to be ‘the true prototype of the English colonist . . . The whole Anglo Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.’ Crusoe – the eponymous hero of the book by Daniel Defoe that is often considered to be the first English novel.”Continue reading Review | Robinson and An Overcoat, both by Jack Robinson a.k.a. Charles Boyle
“Since the ages of Enlightenment and Romanticism, the champions of translation – such as Goethe and Madame de Staël – have urged its necessity, if only as an inferior substitute for the true polyglot’s command of several tongues. That case still needs to be made, especially in English, whose position as a planet-spanning lingua franca may trick native speakers into the delusion that their language, or any language, may encompass the whole world of thought and art.” – from the Introduction
Great novels help us to understand what makes people tick and offer glimpses into the human psyche; they are as illuminating as psychology books. Translated fiction gives a whole added dimension, opening windows on to other worlds and ways of being and perceiving, which is ever more important now that Britain is being forced to re-evaluate its place in the world.
In 2001 when he was literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin revived the Independent Foreign Fiction Award – first won in 1990 by Orhan Pamuk for The White Castle (trs. Victoria Holbrook). He was one of the five co-judges until 2015 when it merged with the Man Booker International Prize. The prize has not only been a huge boost for quality translations and translators, but has also paved the way for other prizes – the TA’s translation prizes which recognize outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish; the TA’s first translation prize; and the Warwick prize for women in translation. Continue reading Review | The 100 Best Novels in Translation, Boyd Tonkin | Book of the Week
“I decided to write a book about William, and to pay tribute to him by calling it Wrestliana. By doing this, I would explicitly take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this ‘being a man’ stuff was something I needed to wrestle with. To be a better son and to be a better father. To be a better man.” — Toby Litt
The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt continues to be effortlessly experimental as he moves skilfully between genres, from a thriller set in high-octane Media London (Corpsing), a coming-of-age tale which turns disturbingly murderous (deadkidsongs), and a parody of chick lit in Finding Myself; to a Henry Jamesian portrayal of bereavement casting a blight over life (Ghost Story), facing the male midlife crisis as a Canadian rock band goes on tour in I play the drums in a band called okay, and a superb collection of twenty-six essays on a diverse range of subjects (Mutants). At times he combines a variety of forms in one book.Continue reading Review | Wrestliana, Toby Litt | Book of the Week
“Chilli bean paste was big business, had been for Gran’s family for four or five generations. Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, were the sort of thing any small trader could sell. All they needed was a place to set up their stall. But, humble though the trade was, the Sichuan pepper was as essential as chilli bean paste at all Pingle Town dinner tables [. . .] Dad had kicked around the chilli bean paste factory for over twenty years, learning the ins and outs of his trade under the tutelage of his shifu, Chen, and if it had taught him one thing, it was that people were born to sweat. You ate chilli bean paste, and Sichuan peppers, and ma-la spicy hotpot, to work up a good sweat, and screwing a girl made you sweat even more. The more you sweated, the happier you felt, Dad reckoned. He remembered the fiery heat that the sweat-soaked bed-sheets in Baby Girl’s house gave off.”
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a rags-to-riches tale about a small-town Chinese family’s survival following on from China’s rapid industrial revolution during Mao Zedong’s rule, and the later economic turmoil of the 1990s. Economic growth entailed a rise in social corruption in all areas of life along with social alienation and a breakdown in moral values.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is in the tradition of the neighbourhood novel – a kind of literary soap. The big three authors of the genre are Naguib Mahfouz, William Faulkner and Vasco Pratolini (who did for Florence in the 1940s what Elena Ferrante has done for Naples today; Pratolini became a screenwriter, collaborating in films such as Paisà by Roberto Rossellini, Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti and Le quattro giornate di Napoli by Nanni Loy.)
A Loving Family
Widowed matriarch, May Xue, is the archetypal grandmother of olden times who loves her family with steely resolve, an overriding concern with social status, and much meddling. She is the owner of the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory which is run by her youngest son, Shengqiang. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, is away at university being a brilliant Professor while his sister Coral Xue – the family peace-maker – lives in the big city with her family and is a successful TV news presenter. Narrated by Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and Anqin, the tone is warm, sharp-eyed and irreverent.
Shengqiang endured a harsh apprenticeship in the factory stirring the vat of chilli bean paste while his brother went off to university, but now in his forties he is very successful. Money is everything to him – as are regular sex, food and getting drunk with his friends since they make him feel good about himself. His wife is “the only woman in Pingle Town who is fortunate enough to have found a husband as rich and as generous as Dad.” Anqin plays mah-jong, reads novels, goes shopping using her husband’s credit cards and turns a blind eye to his succession of mistresses, until one falls pregnant . . .
Shengqiang was close to his older brother Zhiming when growing up, since “he got good marks, he could play snooker and he could pull the girls, [. . .] and was the coolest dude in Pingle Town.” But after Zhiming screwed Baby Girl in the notorious red light district, an intense rivalry had developed and intensified over time.
As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to plan a great celebration for her. Zhiming takes over organising of the event, reminding his brother Shengqiang that, “We’re the Duan-Xue family. It’s got to be grand, and really classy, but it mustn’t be tacky. The Prince’s Mansion Hotel or whatever, that’s fine, but getting signers along is just a way of throwing money around! The Duan-Xue family’s not like other families. Pingle townsfolk are really uneducated, right? . . . They just do things so-so . . . We’re going to make this a very grand occasion indeed.”
Secrets and Lies
Since Grandad’s death, Shengqiang has been the head of the family, a role which he fills with alcohol-and-nicotine-fuelled capability and underlying irritation. He sets up his mistress Jasmine in an apartment in the same block as his mother, and helps out his brother in law, Liu, when he gets a mistress on the quiet. “That day, like a proper head of the family, he got out the keys and gave them to Uncle Liu. ‘I’ve paid six months’ rent in advance,’ he told him. ‘Now it’s down to you’.” Shengqiang does this despite his action being a betrayal of his sister; he realises that “this was the worst thing he had done to a woman in his whole life.”
Debilitating secrets gradually emerge as preparations are made to hold Gran’s birthday celebration in the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory yard; programming all manner of festivities entails the involvement of various locals. As tensions build, Shengqiang feels increasingly put upon. His internal monologue comprising lurid thoughts and rude comments – indicative of his emotional immaturity – is both hilarious and bordering on the tragic since on the surface he continues to be the usual compliant son and brother. His frustration boils up to a fever pitch.
It turns out that Gran’s ruthlessness in furthering the family fortunes meant that she forced arranged marriages on her children. As skeletons rattle out of the closet, even she is not immune to the embarrassment of past misdemeanours coming to light.
Gentrification – Chinese-style
The dynamic tension of the Duan-Zue clan mirrors China as it enters the modern era. The fictional protagonists navigate the distinct social and economic peregrinations of where they live; with the neighbourhood playing a central role. The narrative is littered with references to limousines, hostesses, brothels, the County Party Committee, new apartment blocks, the single-child policy, Chinese Mandarin vs. Sichuan dialect, and other tidbits affording insights into Chinese life – as well as food glorious food! I felt increasingly hungry as I read: Sichuan cuisine is delicious, hot and spicy.
“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 buckets of paint, and all the buildings on, and off; the four main roads were covered in white paint. They looked like they’d been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, chilli turnips and spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes, riceflour 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. The few souls that remained retreated into their shells like tortoises and made do with shopfronts as narrow as the gap between your front teeth.”
A curse of capitalism the world over is the homogenising effect of gentrification: towns and neighbourhoods that are cleaned up means that the eccentrics, creatives and impoverished misfits are swept away out of sight and out of mind. This is a global phenomenon: from Ladbroke Grove W10 to The Marais in Paris and the Lower East Side in Manhattan – as in a small town near Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Money makes the world go around . . .
Nicky Harman’s dignified, pacey, idiomatic translation featuring colloquialisms and colourful insults radiates erudite energy, drawing the reader into a world of muddle and intrigue, blending farce and nostalgia.
Yan Ge was a Chinese literary sensation age seventeen, and has twelve young adult books to her name. She is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of a trilogy of adult fiction: what will happen next in Pingle Town, Sichuan Province?
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman | Balestser Press 13.99GBP 18.99 USD trade paperback 270pp | ISBN 978 1 911221227 | Winner English PEN award
“When has anyone official in this country ever told the truth? I’ve been alive for nearly eighty years and I’ve never seen it. Not once. There are people missing . . .”
We know about how Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1953–59 Cuban Revolution, and that Cuba became a communist thorn in the side of America under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Moscow’s communist ally in the United States’ back yard. But what was it like living day-by-day through the revolution, that moment in time when history altered its course?
The bleakness and violence of life in modern Zimbabwe underpin this powerful coming-of-age tale, as thirteen-year-old Danny comes to understand critical truths about himself, his family and their milieu – and his country. His social observations and attempts to put to rest some of the painful questions surrounding the brutal event which lies at the heart of the novel offer an eye-opening look at life in another culture, and the tensions that lie behind the news headlines.
“I think what happened to us started the day I as out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidentally pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen year old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit.”
“As far as Jamal could tell, only two things were wrong: a dirty yellow vapour was streaming from the canister and everyone in the compound was dead. The smoke that made Jamal cough and choke in his hut was partly from the contents of the canister and partly from Auntie Sheema, who had fallen onto the cooking fire.” [page5]
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a terrorist!
Jamal lives in West Africa. His hut is set apart, away from the family compound, because of something that makes him twitch, something that may or may not be in his head, which may be evidence of black magic. “After his mum died and his grandfather left, taking all the palm wine from his uncle’s store, everyone told Jamal that he was unlucky.” The fact that he is “marked by spirits” is what saves the boy when terrorists attack the village, since he is overlooked.Continue reading Review | The Ghosts & Jamal, Bridget Blankley | Book of the Week