Epic tale of two brothers

2010-06-09 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Brothers

Yu Hua

Picador

A BLURB on the cover of this trans­lation from the Chinese proclaims this to be: ‘The most talked about novel in China this year’ (originally 2005). Not knowing what other novels were talked about in China that year, and not being au fait with Chinese fiction in general, I’m not sure what this proclamation tells us about the novel.

However, by any standards, this is a remarkable work: a personal epic about two small-town half-brothers who become closely bonded by mostly tragic childhood experiences and come to form a David-and-Jonathan team which is later seriously disrupted when both fall in love with the same woman.

The two brothers are almost polar opposites: the younger, Baldy Li, is roughly a predatory “hooligan” (as other characters describe him), while Song Gang, the elder, is gentle, sweet and soft-hearted. The story runs from their early childhood into adulthood, via Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the various changes (notably towards capitalism) that have swept China since then.

Crowded detail is a major feature of this 600-pager that is expansively narrated with almost the density of a Henry James novel. However, the “flavour” of the narration is scarcely Jamesian. The action overflows with bodily fluids, probably the most predominant being tears (of happiness occasionally, mostly of grief) and blood (shed by acts of stomach-churning brutality).

Some indication of the exuberantly physical grossness of the descriptions is provided by the incident on page four in which Baldy Li’s voyeuristic ­father drowns in the cesspool beneath the women’s public lavatory. Much of the novel is hairy — which does give it a seethingly vivid physical immediacy. It is also in places knockabout ­farcical and extremely funny.

In other parts, it presents us with experiences of excruciating loss and suffering. In sum, it covers a huge range of human emotion and experience; and although its style (similes, frequent proverbs and idioms) is, I ­imagine, specifically Chinese, it is one hectic, hysterical, turgid and mind-bending trip for any reader.

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