11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If things go right, I think we’ll be running five reviews this week—which definitely makes up for the one we skipped last week.

Up first is Yu Hua’s Brothers, a very long novel, very ambitious novel about two boys growing up in China during the period of the Cultural Revolution and the economic boom that followed.

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.

Click here to read the full review.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This post by Bruce Humes highlighting all the bits cut out of the Chinese translation of a recent Newsweek profile of author Yu Hua (Brothers) is fascinating:

Yu, a former dentist with the charm of a salesman and an unassuming nature that have earned him comparisons to a peasant, has avoided the censorship of Chinese authorities in part by never writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, he is surprised that the West remains so fascinated by the brutal suppression of student democracy demonstrators in 1989. “Chinese people aren’t really concerned with it anymore,” he says with a laugh. “The younger generation doesn’t know about it because no one has told them. The intellectuals don’t care because things are good now.”

Brothers begins in a much more desolate era. Early in the novel, the Cultural Revolution descends on their town, known as Liu. Gangs of Red Guards patrol the city searching for counterrevolutionaries, “wielding kitchen cleavers and axes, until the electrical poles, the wutong trees, the walls, and the streets were all splattered with blood,” writes Yu. At times, Song Gang and Baldy Li are so poor that all they to swallow is their own saliva. The death of their mother, Li Lan, in the late 1970s marks the end of the Mao years and China’s revolutionary frenzy. “The dead had departed; the living remained,” Yu writes.

In the second half of the novel, Baldy Li and Song Gang separate, each striving to get rich. Baldy Li concocts a number of dishonest, unethical moneymaking schemes to turn him into the richest man in town. In one, the National Virgin Beauty Competition, originally titled the Hymen Olympic Games, 3,000 women compete for the title. But few are actually virgins and many sleep with the judges. Baldy Li awards first and third place to two of the contestants he beds–underscoring China’s rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Song Gang lacks the ruthlessness that Baldy Li wields to suceed in cash-obsessed modern China.

13 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to Literary Saloon for bringing this to our attention. Over at Paper Republic there’s an ongoing discussion of the recent New York Times review by Jess Row of Yu Hua’s Brothers.

It all starts when Bruce Humes raises a few questions about the review:

—-Does Jess Row know Chinese? This is never clarified, yet it is implied throughout that he does. (“reading Brothers in English can be a daunting, sometimes vexing and deeply confusing experience. Partly this has to do with the difficulty of finding an English equivalent for Yu Hua’s extremely direct and graphic Chinese.”) I would certainly like to know, because the ability to compare the two versions would offer a deeper understanding of the book, and empower the critic to offer an informed opinion about the quality of the translation. [. . .]

—-“Does this mean Brothers is untranslatable?” asks Row. It strikes me that there are an awful lot of weird or cutting-edge books out there that have been translated from the French or the Russian, etc. Why is it that when the book in question is Chinese, the first question that pops to mind is whether it can be meaningfully rendered in a European language? Just how “mysterious” is 21st century China to the West, and who is creating, or even manipulating, this perception? If the translation of Chinese literature were carried out by the superb translators and editors who brought Tolstoy and Proust and Kawabata into our lives, would China still seem so “mysterious”?

What ensues in the comments section is exactly what should occur more often in our culture. The responses—which you should really read, it’s a fascinating discussion of translation, how to review a translation, etc.—include a post from Eileen Chow (one of the translators of Brothers) and a reaction from Jess Row himself.

Expanding from an editorial decision to replace a reference to Lin Daiyu with the phrase “a sentimental heroine” the discussion broadens to cover how Chinese literature is presented and what readers/editors expect from a novel. According to Jess Row:

You write, “Are most readers looking for the familiar, or an affirmation of the reality they know, when they read a novel? And have we come to expect authors to “acknowledge” us when they spin a yarn about their own society?” That is exactly my point: I think, unfortunately, that Anglophone readers and editors do look for the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar or seemingly “obscure” (like, say, “Lin Daiyu”?), and that’s what limits the accessibility of this novel, no matter how well it’s translated.

I have to agree that editors and reviewers tend to underestimate readers. Changes like this are perplexing to me. I mean, we all know how to use the internet to get any minute piece of information we want. It took me all of 3 seconds to find the Wiki page explaining “Lin Daiyu”’ for anyone who isn’t familiar with the character. Maybe there are people out there who quit reading when they encounter a word/event/character they’re not already familiar with, but I’d like to think that number is declining. One of the pleasures of reading is encountering new ideas/words/historical contexts, which you can often figure out by the context, or a two second internet search on your iPhone.

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

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