“Dad’s not Dead” by Yan Ge (translated by Nicky Harman)
“Dad´s not dead” is a story about a Sichuan family, which is built around the character of the father. However, the narrator of the story is not father (as one could expect), instead we can see the world through the eyes of his daughter, who brings a breath of fresh air into the story and sometimes makes even the tense scenes funny.
Yan Ge created very vivid characters, which are not black and white, but very complex and it would be a mistake for the reader to make fast judgements about them. Yan Ge is serving us the information about the characters piece by piece and makes us re-evaluate the picture we created about the characters every time additional information suddenly pops up. At the beginning most of the readers would probably see father as an immoral, self-centered, middle aged businessman, who enjoys company of girls, alcohol and cigarettes way too much; and his mother (narrator´s grandmother) as a nice and loving old lady. However, as we are getting deeper into the story, we are provided with many different information (from both past and present) and a new picture of the characters suddenly appears just in front of our eyes. Father who is a capable businessman used to give orders to others, is now shown as a dutiful son, who is not capable of opposing his mother his entire life, being manipulated by her (and other women in general). This also shows his mother in completely different light as a dominant person, insisting on her own truth, not willing to make any compromise.
As the story continues we are getting more familiar with the conditions in the family and the deeper we go under the surface, the clearer it becomes, that the family is far from being perfect and there are some great tensions inside. It seems, that every member of the family has its own secrets and reader is just getting more tense while waiting for firework of emotions to explode.
Rebecca Ehrenwirth, 21/8/17
As a woman it might be hard to sympathize with a male protagonist who cheats on his wife and basically lies to all the women in his life. However, Yan Ge creates a narrator -the protagonist’s daughter – who paints such a vivid picture of family life which is completely centred around “Dad” that one soon forgets to despise him for his “manly” faults and weaknesses. As a reader I felt caught up between pity and compassion for Dad’s misery which he mainly created by himself and for all the people surrounding him. Moreover the novel emphasizes the hero’s dependence on the female other, either in form of his mother, wife or mistress.
This dichotomy is also expressed on another level as Yan Ge chose an interesting narrative situation by letting the reader see through the eyes of the protagonist’s daughter: although one expects a partial and biased story reproachfully told from her perspective but indeed gets a seemingly objective and believable tale. Of course, the story told from her view is far from being objective and reliable, but especially the uncertainty (“It was 1996, or maybe 1995, in March or April” […] “It can’t have been 1996, it must have been 1995.”) – hints to an unreliable narration – make the story even more realistic and the narrator even more likable to the reader. It feels like the daughter is sitting right next to us telling the story, letting us know her version of what her father said, thought and felt, in a way explaining his actions.
Yunwei Wang (Henry), 20/8/17
This article is an excerpt under the title “Dad’s not dead” from YAN Ge’s novel The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The novel, with abundant usage of Sichuan dialect, especially swear words and obscenities in a very condescending, vulgar way, has its setting in a Chinese Western small town, a producer of chilli bean paste, in the early 21st Century. Hereby, this family drama is triggered by Gran’s eightieth birthday celebration, surrounding with potential tension among family middle-aged siblings: A concupiscent and rapacious chilli bean paste mill manager, the Dad, secretly hides his favourite mistress in the same mansion building with his mother; A mistaken wife but with pretty looks, the Mum, who yet had been out of favour from Dad; The peacemaker Aunt and Dad’s most abhorrent elder brother; The matriarch, Gran and his husband who “has a woman outside”.
The pitch-perfect, vividly evocative descriptions of family shenanigans, somehow, are just like the process of making chilli bean paste: the stirring bar makes the beans give off liquid sounds and the flaming red chilli oil flow out, releasing an unique aroma and stink. Moreover, the smart, genuine, subtle balance contained in the flawed family relationships, is presented to be a similar mix of chaos, despair, indifference, but also with mildness, tolerance, and comprehension. It is both two sides of the coin that ultimately lead the narrator “I” and her relatives irresistibly love their home, love their family.
“In Dad’s cell phone, Jasmine Zhong had gone under a variety of guises, all masculine. A few months ago, she had been listed as Zhong Zhong, then for a couple of weeks, it changed to Zhong Jun; recently Dad had decided to keep life simple, and he listed her as just Zhong.”
As the well known fact that people who live in Sichuan are born with an optimistic characteristic, also, the slangy phrases and their connotations all finally form YAN Ge’s unexpected pen portraits: funny, ironic, relaxing, warm. The grinding hardship of life and those painful truths in everyone’s past could be compared to a worn white shirt, you may have to wash it again and again with different attitudes, but you will never be able to throw it away with ease.