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.
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