As we head out of the old, into the new, year, our top 10 reads to see us out feature superb writing from China, fin-de-siècle Paris, the Middle East, Istanbul by way of New York, Switzerland and Cuba, in no particular order. @maclehosepress @carcanet @BanipalMagazine @melvillehouse @dedalusbooks @NBNi_books @hoperoadpublish @oneworldnews @jamiebulloch @PennedintheM
A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes (Vol. 1) by Jin Young, trs. Anna Holmwood (MacLehose Press) buy here
The author Louis Cha who died aged ninety-four on 30 October, wrote under the pen name Jin Yong. His books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and been adapted into countless films, TV series, graphic novels and video games. His works are all set during the rich and storied history of China. The first English translation of A Hero Born, the first of his 12-volume epic Legends of the Condor Heroes, was published earlier on this year by MacLehose Press. We include him here as a tribute to an unparalleled master storyteller. Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | November-December 2018
“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
La rentrée littéraire is a curious phenomenon: hundreds of new books of all genres flood French bookshops and the review pages of the literary press between the end of August and the beginning of November. It is a way for publishers to capitalize on the awards season, and at Frankfurt Book Fair in October – at which France is the guest of honour this year – as well building up a buzz leading into the Christmas period when the most books are sold.
Anglophile French friends in Paris send recommendations. And then there are wonderful talk shows about books like La grande librairie (France 5) or Jérôme Garcin’s Le Masque et la Plume (France Inter) and of course, radio France Culture – all are streamed on the web.
Move over Hollywood and all those creepy doll horror movies! This sours-weet story is compellingly weird and shamanic. When Luir’s mother dies, her father, a thwarted artist working as a doctor in the family hospital, is overcome with grief. He goes abroad to study and promises he will bring home a doll for his six-year-old daughter, Luir, who is left in the care of her grandparents. But the doll brought home from Peru by daddy is a menacing presence in the house, causing strife within the family.
The Ventriloquist’s Daughter was longlisted for the 2014 Found in Translation Award.
TARANTINO ON THE PAGE
Quentin Mouron | Three Drops of Blood and a Cloud of Cocaine (trs. Donald Wilson) | Crime fiction, Bitter Lemon Press ISBN 1908524836 buy here | Review, Crime Time | @bitterlemonpub @QuentinMouron1
This fast-paced and entertaining thriller is cocaine-fuelled Tarantino on the page. “Gomez lifts the top of the sheet. McCarthy is dumbfounded. He has seen dead bodies in Watertown before – the tragic residue of drunken brawls outside bars or nightclubs, victims of muggings committed by drug-starved addicts or illegals awaiting deportation; he has also had to deal with the settling of scores between motorcycle gangs; he even saw the lifeless corpse of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber, before the Feds took it away. Bodies with their throats cut like Jimmy’s aren’t rare. Yet this is the first time he has been confronted with a corpse with the eyes slashed, the tongue cut out, and the cheeks gashed up to the ears.”
Swiss poet, novelist and journalist, Quentin Mouron won the prix Alpes-Jura for his novel Au point d’effusion des égouts in 2011.
“Translation does not simply jump from one language to another. It also ‘crosses’ languages in the sense of blending them, as you might cross a bulldog with a borzoi, or two varieties of rose . . . Translation can cross languages that have much in common – for example, English and French – and language that are very distant – like English and Malay; it can span languages that share the same script system (Japanese and Korean) and those that don’t (Japanese and Arabic or German); it can go between dialects (or between a dialect and a language) or between different words of the same language . . . Translation can be done by one person, or several, or hundreds – or by machine. It can be a matter of life or death, as in a war zone; or an ordinary part of everyday existence in a multilingual community.” Matthew Reynolds, Translation: A Very Short Introduction
In short, language-learning and translation skills are vital in our global era. Ever more so for Brexit Britain: as links are severed with Europe, forging new links with faraway foreign countries will become crucial. How ironic that the prevailing mood is so bulldog British, with foreign language learning on a downward slide, and languages no longer being part of the core curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds. To expect everyone else to speak English, the lingua franca spoken across the world, and no longer be embarrassed by being monolingual, is a deeply arrogant and short-sighted attitude. Language is the means by which one accesses a culture, and is the expression of a culture.
There are oases of hope. Thank goodness for those universities which run language courses and postgraduate degrees in translation – Westminster, Roehampton, SOAS, UCL, UEA and Portsmouth among them.
“Here at the window of the turret room, Lavren, at the sill of the Demerara window, Marie Elena behind him on her deathbed telling the last tales before the end of the world as bachac ants attack the rose bushes in Immaculata’s sunken garden, and woodlice eat their way through the pitchpine floorboards, and Josephine sits by the kitchen door shelling pigeon-peas: from this vantage point, Lavren can listen and write and tell the history of the New World.” So begins a hallucinatory Caribbean tale involving the imperialist land-grab, sexual anarchy, abandoned women, religious mania, “the destruction of the Amerindians, the enslavement of Africans and the indentureship of the Indians,” and culminating in self-rule and independence. “People were dreaming in the twilight barrack-rooms, in the kerosene-lit villages for the setting of the imperial sun.”
Caribbean-style magical realism
Lawrence Scott weaves a magical, lush tapestry of words and images, bringing alive local legends and family narratives; and redressing written histories. The impact of the events recounted still resonate in Caribbean society today. A quasi-historical novel, Witchbroom recounts the story of a colonial white enclave on an offshore island through muddled memories. The central narrator repeats what he remembers “from the distracted mind of his muse Marie Elena, and her art of telling stories while they eat Crix biscuits, rat cheese and guava jelly together in the turret room overlooking the Gulf of Sadness.” The stories are bewitching and highly disturbing. The reader surfs a tidal wave of addictive fascination like a Dickensian tricoteuse sitting beside the guillotine in Paris watching heads roll during the public executions of 1793-4.
This selection of early journalism and travelling tales by Lesley Blanch, edited by Georgia de Chamberet, published on 1 June by Quartet Books, forms a captivating sequel to On the Wilder Shores of Love:A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015; PB 2017).
Savvy, self-possessed, talented and successful, Lesley Blanch was a bold and daring writer, travelling at a time when women were expected to stay at home and be subservient to the needs of husbands and children. She was an inspiration to a generation of women – Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Conran among them. This selection of her writings brims with her customary wit and sheds new light on an eternally fascinating – and truly inimitable – character.
Illustrated with photos and Blanch’s theatre portfolio from her time working with Russian émigré director/producer, Theodore Komisarjevsky; and featuring an insightful introduction. Far To Go and Many To Love brings together writings on subjects as various as Vivien Leigh, polygamy, the Orient Express and Afghanistan.
Praise for On the Wilder Shores of Love… ‘Sumptuous and captivating’ – Independent ‘This is a truly remarkable book’ – Daily Telegraph
Lesley Blanch MBE was born in London in 1904. She spent the greater part of her life travelling, to Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. She published 12 books in her lifetime and was a prolific journalist. She died in 2007 at the age of 103. website: www.lesleyblanch.com twitter: @lesleyblanch
Established in 1983, Dedalus Books is a truly unique publishing house which is recognised for its quality and unorthodox taste in the esoteric, the erotic and the European. The press’s founder and MD, Eric Lane, is unashamedly intellectual. His tenacity and vision have kept Dedalus going through the lean times, and helped it to flourish during the good. Dedalus had two books on the Booker Prize longlist in 1995: Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin and Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen. The complete list of Dedalus prizewinners is at dedalus.com
Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself. No, neither of my parents were great readers. My mother grew up on a farm in southern Italy and my father in an orphanage in Surrey. They met at the end of WW2 when my teenaged mother accompanied a friend who went for a job at the RAF base in Naples. My father was doing the interviewing and offered the friend a job and also one to my mother who refused. As they were leaving my father said to his colleague, I’m going to marry that one – meaning my mother – which he did, in February 1946. My mother was nearly 20 and my father 25. My sister was born in November 1947 and I followed in September 1949. We lived in Finchley which my mother loved. We used to go every few years to Italy. In the end my mother used to speak to everyone in Italy in English with the odd word of Italian whereas my father spoke to everyone in fluent Neapolitan. My parents were very happily married for 25 years until my father died of a heart attack in 1971.Growing up I was a voracious reader but also loved sport, especially football.I was a very spontaneous child and often got in trouble at school for being ‘cheeky’.
“Lolita was rejected by four American publishers in 1954; published in Paris by The Olympia Press, September 1955; banned by the French government, December 1956; found “not objectionable” by U. S. Customs, February 1957; back on the market in France after Olympia won their case against the government, January 1958; published in the U. S., August 1958; re-banned in France after the government’s successful appeal against the initial judgment, December 1956; published in French in Paris, April 1959; back on the market in France in English when the government cancelled their own ban after having been sued again by Olympia, September 1959.
“THIS EDITION IS THE ORIGINAL, COMPLETE AND UNEXPURGATED PARIS EDITION. IT IS THE ONLY ONE ALLOWED TO BE SOLD IN COUNTRIES OTHER THAN THE U.S.A., U.K. AND COMMONWEALTH.”
So reads the back cover blurb of the April 1959 Olympia Press paperback (3rd printing) edition of Lolita. The novel may have a repugnant, discomfiting aura, but oh! how very beautifully Nabokov writes of warped lust and longing, motel sex and middle-America, as he addresses what could be termed a certain Jungian “shadow” side of male human nature. Lolita is an acknowledged classic, and rightly so.Continue reading Review | Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov | Landmark BookBlasts®