BROTHERS by Yu Hua

Book Quote:

“She looked down at the blood that had already turned dark, then looked around, and finally looked at the two boys, her gaze blurring as her eyes filled with tears. She knelt down, opened her bag, and took out a piece of clothing to spread on the ground. Then she carefully brushed off the flies and scooped up the dark crimson dirt into a shirt, kneeling there until she had gathered every last speck of dirt that had been stained by the blood. Even then she continued to kneel, sifting the dirt through her fingers as if she were searching for gold, still looking for the last traces of Song Fanping’s blood.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (JAN 16, 2010)

If one is asked to summarize Brothers, most likely the answer would be something like this: Two brothers lose each other as each tries in his own way to cope with massive change, first cultural and then economic. One gains immense wealth, the other loses hope…and his life. Yet, despite it all, their bond remains.

Brothers‘ more than six hundred pages mixes sections of pathos – such as the nineteenth chapter from which the introductory quotation above was excerpted – with a more characteristic Rabelaisian feel. Almost contrarily, this Chinese novel often feels cartoonish or Three Stooges-esque and is chock full of bodily functions and fluids, prurient interests and profane exclamations. The first paragraph leads the way into this black comedy with this Twilight Zone situation:

“Baldy Li, our Liu Town’s premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan for spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit….”

The text continues,

“Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn, Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes….The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang’s bones.”

Immediately then, Brothers reveals two end-point conditions: one brother wealthy, one brother dead. The question though is what life trajectory brought Baldy Li (Baldy was his nickname because he shaved his head, not his family name) and Song Gang to their respective fates, and the novel proceeds to backtrack to their childhoods in order to fill in their stories. But first a sojourn to Baldy Li as a fourteen-year-old whose curiosity about female bottoms takes him to the local public toilet where he peeps at five different bare rear ends on the ladies’ side before being collared. For an ordinary boy and a different kind of book, this would only have been a passing example of adolescent folly, but Baldy Li, foreshadowing his later entrepreneurial (and sexual) prowess turns his escapade into opportunity for profit. In the process, the reader is treated to pages and pages of butts and other cesspool topics. We learn that Baldy Li unknowingly repeated his birth father’s stinky feat, but while Baldy Li lived long to tell about it, his old man actually perished in the act, leaving Baldy Li’s mother, Li Lan, a widow who had lost face in their town.

Song Fanping, Song Gang’s natural father, is kind and considerate to Li Lan during the first years of Baldy Li’s life (he was born just after his father drowned), and when he himself is widowed, he and she marry. So, the two brothers are actually stepbrothers, with no blood ties. They are seven and six when when their families blend, and soon the two are inseparable.

However, within a year or so, the Cultural Revolution is initiated by Chairman Mao, and here Brothers depicts horrifying acts against those labeled “landlords” or other fingered enemies of the revolution. Song Fanping, a teacher who hailed from the landlord class, is subjected to indignities and far worse by the young cadres that have been let loose by Mao. His harrowing death, like much in the novel, seems over-the-top, but also believable given the chaos and violence that did actually sweep China during those years.

When this book stirred controversy upon publication in China, Brothers‘ author, Yu Hua, gave an interview in Beijing in 2006, stating, ” ‘My stories may be extreme, but you can find all of this in China.’ ” He himself was about Baldy Li’s age when the Cultural Revolution hit and although he doesn’t explicitly say so in the interview, he almost certainly witnessed adults who had to wear peaked dunce caps and day after day allow themselves to be “struggled against.” For Westerners (well, at least for me), the exaggerated, satirical aspects of Brothers distract from its potential as a serious novel. It is confusing to read such a broad, bawdy, often dumbed-down portrait of a Chinese village. And indeed, the fact that Yu Hua chose to write this way also caused some Chinese critics to lash out at him when the book was published there. One derided it as a “trashy, Hollywood-style portrait of the country.” That seems a not unreasonable attitude for them to take. However, as the article notes, the novel (divided into two parts in China) sold over a million copies which was considered “a remarkable achievement.” Upon reflection, it seems to me that Yu Hua’s deliberate style isn’t only an imitation and reflection of the “the crude, accusatory posters” that were used to denounce people during the Cultural Revolution but also a crafty way to inject criticism of China’s past revolutionary excesses without having the book suppressed by government officials in his country. In using overblown plots for smaller things (such as the public toilet scandals), he can then fit in the horrors that cost lives without drawing special approbation; these horrors might be overblown too…but probably are not.

Interestingly, despite numerous events in the novel where citizens pummel each other, sometimes to bloody pulps, the constabulary is nowhere to be seen during these brawls. They are only involved once — when Baldly Li checks out women’s bottoms, and then only because residents haul Baldy Li to the police station. They aren’t concerned about Baldy Li’s bloody face after being beaten by the angry fathers and husbands of the women whose butts he glimpsed. As the original perpetrator, presumably he deserved his retribution in the eyes of the law. But they do deal with his bathroom spying. Other representatives of China’s Communist hierarchy seldom make an appearance, and when they do, it is mainly to dispense bureaucratic guidelines and rather mild prohibitions. Yu Hua heaps the responsibility for the violent zeal of the Cultural Revolution and other, less organized violent village squabbles on the citizens, not the government, which is probably quite prudent immunization against being censured even during this relatively tolerant era of rule in China.

Back to the plot. Once Baldy Li’s mother passes away (when he is still a teen), he and his brother live together and vie for the same young woman. Then when she makes her choice, Baldy Li and Song Gang trek along very different roads, rarely seeing one another again. They become, in effect, symbols as well as characters as they personify the economic fast track (after a few setbacks) versus the hand-to-mouth existence of a steady but unimaginative labor force. Then they respectively represent out-of-this-world success versus defeat of body and determination. How Baldy Li makes his millions is amusing and yet serves as a parable of the Chinese economic boom, while the desperate, supererogatory measures that Song Gang takes to earn money in the marketplace invoke an incredulous revulsion but also deep sympathy for him. Everywhere in Liu Town and elsewhere, money is being shaken almost from the trees by hook and crook, by crazy stunts, by sweet talk, and by luck played out with a knack for making a deal.

In tandem with the economic explosion of the 1990′s, the novel’s fixation on sex also inflates. Another case in point after the infamous bathroom peeping takes place much later in the book: a virgin beauty contest. This is another Baldy Li brainchild in which verification of virginity is done by physically checking whether hymens are intact (and this was the portion of the novel I least liked). During his lean times — and he has them, just as Song Gang does — Baldy Li pretty much swears off women, but as his pocketbook swells so does his appetite for the opposite sex. This obsession ultimately leads the very randy Baldy Li to commit a sexual transgression that irrevocably affects him, Song Gang, and the woman they had both pursued in their youth.

As Brothers follows Baldy Li and Song Gang through decades, it simultaneously paints a heavily sardonic background of Chinese village life. Much of the narrative follows supporting characters. The blacksmith, a woman shopkeeper, two pretentious would-be literati, and a slowly rising bureaucrat are among these, as is, in the earlier parts of the book, a long-haired, strutting teenager whom still-kid Baldy Li gloms onto during a period when he would otherwise be left to his own devices in the streets. The older boy was once Baldy Li’s tormenter. But now the teen’s father also has to wear the dunce cap of an enemy of the people, and shunned and lonely the teen allows the child nearly half his age to tag along. However, sticking to the older boy like glue causes Baldy Li to witness and nearly become the victim of a bloody atrocity in the street, an atrocity again carried out by the people, not authorities. Mainly though, the villagers are busybodies and sometimes simple-minded. When offered opportunities to invest in various Baldy Li enterprises, they don’t fully understand what it means to be shareholders and this leads to misunderstandings, bitterness and more beatings.

How then, to assess this novel?

As mentioned, this is a mixture of tall-tale storytelling and kernels (gems) of insight. It is entertaining in its absurdity, but also disappointing to a degree for the same reason. For many readers, the serious themes and the touching relationships may shed some of their gravitas and meaning because of the novel’s overarching farcical antics and facetious tone. Still, the several deaths it grimly details arguably give the novel its existential backbone and its true claim to being a solid work of literature because the deaths and their aftermaths embody human suffering, devotion, courage, and love. Song Fanping’s death especially remains in the mind as a brutal stilling of a man possessed of nearly indomitable, generous spirit.

Brothers is certainly a remarkably imaginative novel. It doesn’t present the reader with any dull moments. Something weird or shocking is always afoot. Someone is always burping, pissing, crying, sweating, cussing, humping, eating, dying, beating someone, chasing a girl, or trying to make money. And it works — in its own way, as its own inimitable literary “artwork.” It isn’t a realist “painting” or, on the other extreme, an abstract one. Instead, It’s more of an impressionist piece that exaggerates and caricatures, yet succeeds in shining light on things and history that otherwise might receive none. The human tragedies that really mark the epochs of so-called progress may not all get their due, but, in a sense, fiction memorializes them anyway. (Translated by Carlos Rojas)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 10 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (January 12, 2010)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AMAZON PAGE: Brothers
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Yu Hua
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More by Chinese authors:

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan

A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

Bibliography:


January 16, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: ,  В· Posted in: China, Facing History, Family Matters, Humorous, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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