As detailed in the profile of Yu Hua in the New York Times Magazine, he’s considered to be one of China’s most important contemporary writers. In fact, two of his novels — To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant — were honored in China as two of the most influential books of the last decade. But neither of those titles (both of which are available in English translation) are anywhere near as ambitious and over-stuffed as Brothers, which is one reason why the Times Magazine piece stated that this “may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction.”
Although I don’t think things quite worked out that way, it’s easy to see why one might think that this novel would take off. It’s a conventional family saga that tells the life stories of Song Gang and Baldy Li, two step-brothers who live through the Cultural Revolution and into China’s economic boom years.
The novel opens with a frame story of Baldy Li, Liu Town’s most successful businessman, sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, dreaming of spending “twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space.” He begins reminiscing about his now-deceased brother Song Gang, and about the time when, as a young boy, Baldy Li peeked under the partition in the public toilet and saw five women’s butts, including the butt of Lin Hong, the most desired woman in Liu Town.
From that point on, the novel advances in a linear fashion, describing how Baldy Li figures out how to sell his description of Lin Hong’s bottom to various townsmen for bowls of noodles, of how Baldy’s mother remarried and Song Gang comes into Baldy’s life, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of how Baldy Li goes on to become one of the richest people in China, capable of spending millions on a trip to space.
Along the way, there are endless reverses of fortune—Song Gang ends up marrying Lin Hong, Baldy Li’s grand schemes bankrupt him and lead him to collecting trash—and numerous side stories that give this novel a sort of Dickensian quality, allowing Yu Hua to really sketch out Chinese society both during and after Mao. The epic scope of the novel, along with Hua’s ability to shift from warm humor to sheer horror in the same sentence, are the real high points of this book. It’s easy to get sucked into Hua’s world, even when the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen next, which is true a good deal of the time.
The first half of the book (it was published in China in two volumes) is the strongest section, taking place primarily during the Cultural Revolution and providing some brilliantly disturbing scenes, that occasionally make this a heart-wrenching read. For example, Sun Wei is a slightly older boy who endlessly picks on the two brothers, and is the son of the man who leads the charge in killing Song Gang’s father (Baldy Li’s step-father). Sun Wei’s father then becomes the target of the townspeople (no one was safe during the Cultural Revolution) and is forced to wear a duncecap and make a public confession. After the townspeople decided that long hair is “bourgeois,” they decide to forcibly cut Sun Wei’s luxurious hair:
The razor blade in the red-armbander’s hand was slashing through Sun Wei’s hair and neck like a machete. Between the red-armbander’s downward trhusts and Sun Wei’s struggles, the razor blade slashed deeply into Sun Wei’s neck. Blood gushed all over the blade, but the red-armbander still slashed, ultimately slicking through the jugular vein.
Baldy Li witnessed the horrific scene as blood spurted in a two-yard-long arc like a fountain. The faces of the red-armbanders were sprayed with blood; shocked, they all leapt back like springs. Whe Sun Wei’s father rushed over and saw that his son’s neck was spurting blood, he pleaded with the group to spare his boy. As he knelt on the blood-drenched ground his cap fell off, but this time he didn’t retrieve it. Instead he cradled his son in his arms as Sun Wei’s head flopped over like a doll’s. He screamed his son’s name, but there was no response. With a look of terror he asked the crowd, “Is my son dead?”
No one answered. The red-armbanders responsible for Sun Wei’s death were all mopping the blood from their faces and looking about in a panic, struck dumb by what had just happened.
Yu Hua’s prose (or at least his prose as rendered in Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas’s translation) is so direct and clear that it’s very easy to envision all of the scenes from his novel. This is a very descriptive book, reading in a way that’s cinematic to a fault. That really diminishes the impact of the novel—it’s not a monumental work of literature, instead it’s simply a long, textured story.
Another problem with this book is how acceptable the actions of the characters are, especially Song Gang and Baldy Li, who are almost too perfect to be believed. Even when they’re doing something that the reader might disagree with, they’re acting in a reasonable, forgivable manner. The above excerpt points to this flaw: after the reader suffers through page upon page of abuse brought upon Song Gang’s father by Sun Wei’s dad, this sudden reversal (and the deaths of Sun Wei and his father) recasts his in a much more sympathetic light. And with the lack of internal descriptions, the characters move like ciphers across the page, allowing the author to manipulate the reader’s emotions and interests.
On one level, Brothers is a perfectly enjoyable book to spend a dozen hours reading. It’s engrossing and funny (like the bit with Baldy Li humping the telephone poles and wooden benches), with a well-constructed plot. Based on the all the pre-release buzz and claims of its literary greatness, I was expecting something more—something groundbreaking and unique. Instead, this is more or less a John Irving novel set in China. Which is fine—but not the “literary masterpiece” I was hoping for.