Book Reviews: Brothers (Yu Hua)

July 7, 2009 by  

Brothers is a tragicomic epic of virtue punished and baseness rewarded, played out on the luridly colored stage that is modern China.  The tale spans the time between the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist excesses of the 21st century, chronicling the divergent fates of two step-brothers.

They are Baldy Li and Song Gang, united by their parents’ second marriages just before the Cultural Revolution.  The two could not be more unlike; Song Gang is the handsome and noble descendant of a formerly wealthy landowning family, while Baldy Li, like his father, is primarily distinguished for being the town’s most successful latrine peeping tom.  Ancestry is important in Brothers; the author implies throughout that the apple does not fall far from the tree.  The novel explores what happens when that apple falls on the alternately fertile or barren soil of a given historical period.

This exploration is where the two-volume structure of the novel becomes important.  The first part takes place during the Cultural Revolution, during which Song Gang and Baldy Li become united by tragedy.  More importantly, however, the author presents this dark period in China’s history as a time of destruction of all good things and people.  Outstanding individuals and institutions were the prime targets of revolutionary thugs, leaving only those who did not threaten the regime; the weak and the mediocre.

In an interview, Yu Hua says that to understand modern China, one must first comprehend the significance of the Cultural Revolution.  If in Part I, all that is good and worthwhile in Chinese society has been swept away, Part II paints the myriad chaos that ensues when the gutted, mediocre post-revolutionary society encounters the endless possibilities presented by capitalism.  In many ways, Part II is the author’s explanation for the age-old question of why good is punished while the immoral seem to thrive.  His answer is that in a world turned upside down, virtues are liabilities.

Song Gang, in attempting to provide for his family, must work at debilitating physical labor.  When he ruins his health doing so, he becomes an unsuccessful quack medicine salesman (for the final humiliation, he gets breast implants along the way).  Baldy Li, on the other hand, feels no responsibility to work, and he is rewarded for his sloth by creating a billion-dollar scrap materials empire.

Similarly, Song Gang’s beautiful wife, admired and lusted after by everyone during her youth in the Cultural Revolution, is turned into a kind of monstrosity in the modern world.  All that is good finally becomes a kind of parody of itself.

After the revolution, in the topsy-turvy world brought about by Maoist policies, Song Gang is the oddity who cannot find his place, while Baldy Li is fully at home and richly rewarded.  The final line of Brothers is too delicious to give away, but it is devastating in its absurdity.  After reading this unique novel, one is left at once with laughter and sadness.

Brothers is a tragicomic epic of virtue punished and baseness rewarded, played out on the luridly colored stage that is modern China.  The tale spans the time between the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist excesses of the 21st century, chronicling the divergent fates of two step-brothers.

They are Baldy Li and Song Gang, united by their parents’ second marriages just before the Cultural Revolution.  The two could not be more unlike; Song Gang is the handsome and noble descendant of a formerly wealthy landowning family, while Baldy Li, like his father, is primarily distinguished for being the town’s most successful latrine peeping tom.  Ancestry is important in Brothers; the author implies throughout that the apple does not fall far from the tree.  The novel explores what happens when that apple falls on the alternately fertile or barren soil of a given historical period.

This exploration is where the two-volume structure of the novel becomes important.  The first part takes place during the Cultural Revolution, during which Song Gang and Baldy Li become united by tragedy.  More importantly, however, the author presents this dark period in China’s history as a time of destruction of all good things and people.  Outstanding individuals and institutions were the prime targets of revolutionary thugs, leaving only those who did not threaten the regime; the weak and the mediocre.

In an interview, Yu Hua says that to understand modern China, one must first comprehend the significance of the Cultural Revolution.  If in Part I, all that is good and worthwhile in Chinese society has been swept away, Part II paints the myriad chaos that ensues when the gutted, mediocre post-revolutionary society encounters the endless possibilities presented by capitalism.  In many ways, Part II is the author’s explanation for the age-old question of why good is punished while the immoral seem to thrive.  His answer is that in a world turned upside down, virtues are liabilities.

Song Gang, in attempting to provide for his family, must work at debilitating physical labor.  When he ruins his health doing so, he becomes an unsuccessful quack medicine salesman (for the final humiliation, he gets breast implants along the way).  Baldy Li, on the other hand, feels no responsibility to work, and he is rewarded for his sloth by creating a billion-dollar scrap materials empire.

Similarly, Song Gang’s beautiful wife, admired and lusted after by everyone during her youth in the Cultural Revolution, is turned into a kind of monstrosity in the modern world.  All that is good finally becomes a kind of parody of itself.

After the revolution, in the topsy-turvy world brought about by Maoist policies, Song Gang is the oddity who cannot find his place, while Baldy Li is fully at home and richly rewarded.  The final line of Brothers is too delicious to give away, but it is devastating in its absurdity.  After reading this unique novel, one is left at once with laughter and sadness.

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