"Brothers," by Yu Hua

By Bei Ling,
who is the founder and executive director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.
Thursday, February 19, 2009


By Yu Hua

Translated from the Chinese by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas

Pantheon. 641 pp. $29.95

Yu Hua's epic novel -- a bestseller in his native China -- is a tale of ribaldry, farce and bloody revolution, a dramatic panorama of human vulgarity. All these facets of "Brothers" come together in the protagonist, a rags-to-riches figure who experiences 40 years of tumultuous Chinese history, from an era ruled by communist ideology to one driven by capitalist desire. The unrestrained length of this novel gives Yu Hua plenty of scope to indulge his imagination, and in a style at once hyperrealist and phantasmagorical, he conveys the feel of Chinese society as it shifts from crazily making revolution to crazily making money.

In its coarse spoken idiom, "Brothers" describes the lives of two half-brothers, Baldy Li and Song Gang, who grow up in a small southern town and must rely on each other when storms of social change sweep over the land. Yu Hua brings home to modern readers what the Maoist era was like, how the period of reform and opening progressed and how the switch to a market economy affected communism.

The story is a fable writ large about how the manic materialism of today's China sprang from the insanely politicized culture of Mao's era. The Cultural Revolution was thoroughly insinuated into the bloodstream of the Chinese people, at least for the two generations covered in the novel, and Yu Hua suggests that its hereditary effects will persist for decades no matter what economic reforms come to the country.

In the brothers' trajectory from poverty to wealth, we see how the residual poison of the Cultural Revolution plays out for two individuals. Due to the cruel persecution of his parents, Baldy Li suffers from a deformed brand of idealism that he expresses in his rigidly worshipful love of the beautiful Lin Hong. His brother Song Gang's idealism takes the form of blind loyalty to Baldy, which he carries to extraordinary lengths. Song Gang does not dare acknowledge Lin Hong's interest in him, for that would go against his brother. At first, the critical flaw for both of these brothers is an absolute commitment to some unsustainable value. Later, in their long descent into disillusionment, they console themselves with material desires.

Baldy Li's career as a junk dealer begins as a passive protest against the collective social structure. He fetishizes fragmentary objects because he sees no other standard of value in his communist society, but changing times eventually bring him material rewards. As his salvage business grows, he gives up his unrequited love and obsessively collects beautiful women instead. Meanwhile, Song Gang's chance at love is poisoned by his suicidal self-abnegation, until he rebounds and goes to the other extreme.

English readers may find "Brothers" unpalatable because of its crude humor or because they know little about the historical scars to which Yu alludes. But readers who persist through the disorienting topography of this unflinching tale will be rewarded with a direct exposure to current Chinese realities. As China rises to prominence as a world power, its national character continues to be affected by the heritage of its violent communist revolution, and in this book we see something of how the country's collective unconscious has been shaped.

The second of the novel's two parts drags a bit because Yu cannot restrain himself from elaborating as he depicts a country ruled by terminal risk-takers, confidence men, libertines and fools. And yet the writing is not coldblooded; human warmth and compassion do come through all the cruel absurdity. There is little doubt that Yu is paying tribute to the magical realist Gabriel García Márquez, but his use of language is faithful to his mother tongue, and this translation by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas never falls into the Westernized diction that afflicts many fiction writers in modern China. Ironically, we can see a true picture of the country refracted in this funhouse mirror.

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