three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Yu Hua
user_rating: 
0

A-BrothersYu Hua, born in China in 1960, experienced the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. He has published four previous novels, among other works. Brothers, originally published in China, has sold more than a million copies since its release there in 2005. It also won France’s Prix Courrier International.

The Story: The book opens in a small Chinese town, where an adolescent Baldy Li takes a lascivious peep at women in a public pit toilet; his behavior is a far cry from that of his more refined stepbrother, Song Gang. Their family disintegrates when their father—a criminal for having been born into the landowning class—is thrown in jail. Taking place over 40 years, the novel explores love and brotherly bonds as it juxtaposes the Cultural Revolution with modern Chinese capitalism. Baldy Li becomes a prosperous, sexually obsessed hustler—a crass representation of the new China—while his brother works in a factory and becomes a man out of step with the modern world. Neither, however, can escape the legacy of the past.
Pantheon. 656 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0375424997

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"A sprawling, bawdy epic that crackles with life’s joys, sorrows, and misadventures, Brothers is one of the great literary achievements of this nascent year. … Both ribald and elegiac, Brothers is a satire, but also a rebuke of how China, in its breathless pursuit of success, has compromised its soul." Renée Graham

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"A characterization of Baldy’s notoriety can also be applied to this relentlessly entertaining epic: ‘Though his reputation reeked, it reeked like an expensive dish of stinky tofu—which is to say, it might stink to high heaven, but damn, it sure tasted good.’"

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Novelist Yu, the son of doctors, was a boy himself during the Cultural Revolution, and his merciless fictional translation of that first summer of chaos would make Anthony ‘Clockwork Orange’ Burgess blanche. … Yet Yu’s comic genius saves his book from didacticism." Karen R. Long

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Bei Ling

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"In broad outline, the novel’s plot—two orphaned brothers, sworn to protect each other, are divided by history and their love for the beautiful Lin Hong—is simplistic and soap-operatic. … Despite a few slow stretches, Brothers is a consistently and terrifically funny read." Ben Ehrenreich

Critical Summary

Because of its subversive portrait and critique of China’s oppression and soul-changing capitalism, Brothers, while a best seller in China, also raised some eyebrows. Critics in the United States, however, embraced Brothers for its enlightening look at the country’s social and economic transformation. To be sure, the novel is a ribald satire of both the Cultural Revolution and the distortion of its ideals, and the crude, unsophisticated humor and plot may alienate some readers. Some of this may stem from the translation: according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, it is "clumsy" and "cliché-ridden." Yet if crudeness can be forgiven, readers will be amply rewarded; Brothers imaginatively and successfully captures China’s manic energy, past and present.