Reviewed by Lucas Klein
In Ulysses James Joyce brought Leopold Bloom to the toilet; in Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pychon pushed Tyrone Slothrop through it. In Brothers, the new novel by celebrated Chinese author Yu Hua, we find Baldy Li head down in the latrine, gazing up at the peeing posteriors of the women on the other side of the wall. But while such a description suggests that Brothers fulfills the promise of Euro-American modernist and postmodernist fiction, Yu Hua's real ancestry is the long tale of pre-modern China. And just as Baldy Li walks away from the spot where his father drowned engaging in the same activities, with the townspeople muttering, "A chip off the old block," Yu Hua's fiction seems to thrive where its forebears perished.
The novel describes Baldy Li and his stepbrother Song Gang as they pass from the violence and treachery of the Cultural Revolution and its overt class warfare to the violence and treachery of China's current capitalist period and its covert class warfare. Beginning with Baldy Li's memory of his mother's marriage to widower Song Fanping and his introduction to his new sibling Song Gang, the story ends with the death of one of the brothers, the direct result of the other's betrayal. The relationship between the crass, brazen Baldy Li and the sensitive, submissive Song Gang forms the central tension of the story, as they shift between camaraderie and rivalry, between fraternity and enmity. Surrounding, and motivating, their tortuous and torturous relationship are the vicissitudes of history, the growth of capitalism in post-Maoist China and the opportunities Baldy Li is able to exploit -- which further result in the exploitation of Song Gang.
In the '80s Yu Hua was known for the brutality of his short stories, but when he turned to full-length novels in the '90s, his fiction began to depict characters defined more by their earnestness in the face of historical tragedy. To that extent, Brothers may represent a return. But while the episodes of the novel are ribald and raucous -- Baldy Li's corporate campaign to court town beauty Lin Hong, only to be thwarted by her love for Song Gang; Baldy Li's infamous commercial endeavors and philandering, capitalizing on his scrap business to judge a beauty contest for virgins, all of whom have had hymen-replacement operations; Song Gang's deformation and emasculation from economic oppression, as he gets breast implants to sell female enhancement cream -- the heart of Brothers, where Yu Hua's writing finds an authenticity to counter its incredibility, is in its characters. In addition to the central characters, Yu Hua also gives the readers a small cast of minor figures -- such as Blacksmith Tong, Writer Liu and Poet Zhao, Mama Su, and Yanker Yu -- whose recurrence throughout Brothers signals the historical changes of the last forty-five years in China, whether they are beating up on the brothers in their youth or investing in their success at older age.
To the strength of the minor characters should be added the voice of the narrator: clearly an inhabitant of the village where Song Gang's and Baldy Li's lives unfold -- the book's first sentence refers to "our Liu Town" -- he recounts the protagonists' travails with a conversational cadence, though he is never named. (One guess is Yanker Yu, perhaps the namesake of our author, who pulled teeth as an occupation before becoming a writer.) The colloquial voice of the narration is at once a throwback to pre-modern Chinese fiction, where written prose narratives were peppered with cliffhangers, digressions, sound effects, and other staples of the storyteller's performance, and a test of the translators' mettle (one prominent review pondered, in the vague and ethereal manner that arises whenever the mainstream press considers translation, whether the Chinese storytelling tradition was "untranslatable"). For their translation Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas receive high marks, giving their narrator a consistent voice with palpable wit and visible verve, shortening Yu Hua's sentences to fit English expectations but maintaining fidelity to the length and pace of his clauses, the real seat of an author's prose style. In a few places, however, the translators did not take full advantage of the range of the English vernacular and slang: the term they translate as "pubic region," for instance, does not sound as priggish in Chinese as it does in English.
The unpriggishness of Brothers may be one of its main points, and one of the features that have led to its reproach from some Chinese critics. China has a long tradition of paying attention to the body, from Mencius's location of Confucian morality in the body to Chairman Mao stating that the body is the capital of revolution, but Chinese culture has more recently undergone a bout of prudery, which many contemporary writers have revolted against by sexing up their narration. Yu Hua's depiction of sex is never romantic; rather he mixes pleasure and pain to often unsettling degrees. Like the history of China's development over the period Brothers spans, sex is a space for lopsided power plays and convoluted cost-benefit analyses, where none of the characters ever manage to get what they want.
The mixture of pleasure and pain and lopsided power amidst economic development does not only play out in the bedroom, it affects the whole household as well. China likewise has a long tradition of attentiveness to the family, but in showcasing the destruction of the family -- how brothers can no longer be brothers -- Yu Hua hits at the rot upon which China's last half-century has been built. To this end, Brothers serves as a Marxian critique of China's Communist Party-led capitalism. But that does not mean that clean-cut or overwrought analysis motivates the novel's momentum -- Yu Hua is too cynical for that. Instead, in building his fiction on pre-modern storytelling conventions and traditional Chinese concerns, applied to the questions of the country's current modernization, Yu Hua gives us a book where the past can be brought to bear on the present, raising the question of the pleasure and pain we will see in the future.
Books mentioned in this post