This huge novel, half a million Chinese characters long in the original, was a national sensation when it first surfaced in China three years ago, its two parts together selling over a million copies. Its fleshy sensationalism also appealed to Western critics who hailed Yu Hua (余華) as a profound satirist who’d peeled away the veneer of respectability that had concealed the realities of some of the most bizarre decades in all China’s history.
Brothers (Xiong Di, 弟兄) was first published in Chinese in two parts — with the second very much the longer — in Taipei in 2005 and 2006. This vigorous and racy English version is translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow (周成蔭) and Carlos Rojas, both American academics. Interestingly, the latter was one of the editors of Writing Taiwan, reviewed in the Taipei Times on Jan. 18, and the two have in addition edited Rethinking Chinese Popular Culture (Routledge, 2008) together.
This new translation was short-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, and the only response possible to its not winning is that the novel that did win must have been magnificent indeed.
The story involves two stepbrothers, the maverick Baldy Li (so-called because his mother told the barber to shave off all his hair as a child to save money) and the more philosophical Song Gang. Their shared passion for the beautiful Lin Hong snakes its way through the book.
Sexual detail is everywhere, but narrated in a brash, farcical way. Unprecedented orgasms, fake bust-enlarging creams, artificial hymens and silicone implants are strewn through the novel’s many pages.
Eating, too, features prominently, along with the sex and violence — all three directly physical things, and the opposite of the mental subtleties involved in aesthetic appreciation or metaphysical speculation, neither of which constitute Yu’s natural strengths.
This widely-ranging and ironic portrait of modern China evokes the very feel of the place, with its popular Korean TV soaps, Eternity bicycles, factory labor, Big White Rabbit candles, neon lights and raucous music, plus — for the successful — French wines, Italian furniture and a new white Mercedes.
The novel as a whole prompts the thought that China isn’t so much a socialist country busy embracing hyper-capitalism as a weird, perverse, more than half-crazed and wholly unique phenomenon. The “Chinese
characteristics” described by Deng Xiao-ping (鄧小平) include, for this author, the furthest reaches of sexual inventiveness and the most bizarre of plastic surgery techniques. Toilets, gold-plated or otherwise, feature prominently, as do hymen-reconstruction surgery (no imaginary procedure) and get-rich-quick schemes in the spirit of the modern Chinese enthusiasm for all aspects of capitalism. Confucian values of modesty, respect for elders and selfless integration into the social order couldn’t be further from the world described in this ribald, lurid, zany narrative.
Individual re-invention mirrors a national re-invention in which both a 5,000-year-old civilization and a shorter-lived Maoist construct are both ditched in favor of something more surreal, plastic and absurd. This is classic comic writing, where the grotesqueness found in real life is concentrated and intensified by a process of relentless accumulation to portray a world gone mad. And yet much of this gross fantasy is rooted in fact — there really was a Miss Artificial Beauty Contest in China for recipients of plastic surgery, for example. As for the Virgin Beauty Contest at the center of Part Two of the book, the reality it covers isn’t hard to imagine.