Yu Hua. Brothers: A Novel. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. Translated by Eileen Cheng-yin and Chow and Carlos Rojas.
This epic novel follows two brothers, Baldy Li and Song Gang, through the cultural revolution and into China's embrace of capitalism. Published as two books in China, it was a best seller. I admit to not having finished this 600+ page book, I'll though I have finished book 1 and well into book 2 with just about one hundred pages to read. I suddenly needed to take a break from this tragicomic novel. Always a little wary of entering into such a long novel, I found that after the first chapter or so, I was completely captivated.
At first the characters seemed a bit cartoonish. Young Baldy Li marched through the town after having been caught trying to get a look at the women's behinds in the town latrine. His father, also a latrine peeper, died when he fell in while trying to get a view of the women's side of the latrine. Song Gang on the other hand is a steady, generous, and studious child. But, as the novel progresses, and the characters struggle against the brutality of poverty, political expediency, selfishness, and fear, they become three dimensional and compelling.
Both Song Gang and Baldy Li are smart in their own ways and it is good because at an early age they must fend for themselves. Brought together by their parents' marriage, they are separated when Song Gang's father dies, a victim to the political extremism of the cultural revolutionaries. When Baldy Li's mother dies, they are rejoined. Baldy Li is all bravado, having earlier fed himself on his story of having glimpsed the town beauty's behind (told for a bowl of house special soup), and Song Gang's steady and thoughtful nature, causing him to be careful with money, and a nurturer like his father, cooking and maintaining the household. Both Baldy Li and Song Gang find work. Baldy Li is given a job in the local charity factory that employs "idiots" and disabled members of society. He quickly takes over making the factory a raging success. Song Gang works in a factory as well. He wins the heart of the town beauty, something that Baldy Li wanted for himself. The brothers are separated by this love triangle. As the cultural revolution fades away and capitalism becomes the new way of doing things, Song Gang and his true love are beset by bad health and unemployment while Baldy Li masterminds another financial success.
Despite their falling out Baldy Li, a strange mix of thoughtlessness and generosity, continues to care about Song Gang, his pride never overtakes him. He attempts to help Song Gang, but either Song Gang's wife is unwilling, or Song Gang himself refuses the help. Baldy Li's enterprises remake the small village that he and Song Gang grew up in. His loss of his true love to Song Gang keeps him on an insatiable search for female affection. Finally, he holds a virgin beauty contest, which creates a market for the means for returning women to a physical state of virginity. I'll have to revisit this blog posting when I finally finish the book.
Brothers is filled with vulgarity and brutality and the characters are painted in broad strokes--subtlety is not a term that can be used to describe this novel. Yu Hua tells the story of
recent Chinese history as experienced within one small village. I was fortunate to hear Yu Hua talk shortly after the novel was released in the United States. He said that you could compare the change that happened in 500 years of European history to the change that took place in China over a period of 40 years--and this change has manifested itself in all ways, from modernization, to social morés, to political and economic philosophy.
This is indeed a hefty novel, but it is also a fascinating and rewarding read.
Burling 3rd Floor: PL2928.H78 X5613 2009