Epic tale of two brothers

2010-06-09 00:00



Yu Hua


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.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.