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Brothers

A Novel

by Yu Hua

Brothers by Yu Hua X
Brothers by Yu Hua
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 656 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2010, 656 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

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An epic and wildly unhinged black comedy of modern Chinese society running amok

Brothers, published as one book in English, was originally published in China as two separate books.  The first volume, published in 2005, relates Baldi Li's and Song Gang's childhoods and early adolescence growing up during China's Cultural Revolution (see sidebar).  While the style is consistent throughout the novel, the overall tone of the first book is increasingly dark, with a depth that isn't carried through to the book's second half. A pervasive sense of impending tragedy imbues much of the narrative. Yu does a remarkable job of conveying the emotional and physical devastation inflicted on China's populace as seen through the eyes of its children.

The second book (first published in 2006) picks up when the brothers are young men and follows their lives throughout the decades that follow. Yu chronicles China's reaction to and recovery from the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution. While in the 1960s and 1970s China's citizens were repressed and permitted no personal freedoms whatsoever, Yu portrays the people of the 1980s and 1990s gravitating to the other end of the spectrum, overindulging in the freedoms they'd been denied for so long, and taking those liberties to the extreme. Emotionally, the tenor of this second section is a great deal lighter, but its satire is considerably more acerbic. The narrative is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, often sinking into the ridiculous.

Throughout, Yu's style owes much to Chinese storytelling tradition. There's a rhythm to the language that makes one feel one is listening to the story, rather than reading it. Phrases are repeated more often than would be normal in a traditional novel. For example, at one point Baldi Li asks a group of children to go wait for someone "like a midnight cat waiting for a midnight mouse." A few paragraphs later, the author writes, "And so they waited like a midnight cat waiting for a midnight mouse." The phrase recurs again in the next paragraph. The sentences are short with a simple vocabulary. It's reminiscent of a children's bedtime story (with R-rated content).

Other stylistic choices add to the novel's folk-tale atmosphere. Yu's humor is bawdy and earthy, devoid of subtlety. The plot is action driven, with very little space taken up with analysis or with fleshing out characters; Baldi Li's workers are always referred to as the "fourteen loyal minions," never as "employees" or by individual names. Events are exaggerated to the point that they become outlandish. Normally this type of narration would quickly become tedious or strike the reader as silly, but in Yu's hands this approach is quite effective. He brilliantly takes what appears on the surface to be a simplistic style and not only gets his political point across, but creates an immensely entertaining novel in the process.

Brothers will not appeal to everyone. The subject matter is unrelentingly coarse; there's not a single human bodily function or body part that doesn't get its fair share of verbiage. The first few pages of the book (excerpted at BookBrowse) relate the story of Baldi Li getting caught looking at women's buttocks at the public latrine, and how his father died when he fell into the cesspit below the toilets while attempting the same action – and that's not nearly as tasteless as some of the other occurrences the author relates in the novel's second half. The text is liberally sprinkled with obscenities. It is also frequently quite violent. Readers who are not sensitive to such vulgarities, however, will find a rich exploration of current Chinese culture and insight into the factors that influenced the country's evolution to its present state.

About the Author: BookBrowse has a short biography of the author but a longer profile, together with an early review of Brothers from 2006, can be found at the New York Times.


Interesting Links:

  • Though I Am Gone, a Chinese documentary (with English subtitles) about the persecution and ultimate death of a Beijing school principal, Bian Zhongyun. She was killed by female Red Guards, former students of her school, who used wooden clubs spiked with nails to beat her to death. The documentary is about one hour long and is posted on YouTube in 10 parts, the first part is available below. Perhaps, through telling the story of just one person, this documentary can provide us with a human-sized view into the horror of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Propaganda posters and songs from The Cultural Revolution.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2009, and has been updated for the January 2010 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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