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'Brothers' Offers A Sweeping Satire Of Modern China

Read Brothers, Yu Hua's sensational, sweeping and satirical 600-plus-page novel about life in a Chinese village from the early days of the Cultural Revolution to the giddy capitalist present, and you'll realize what's missing from a lot of other contemporary social novels, and in particular, Tom Wolfe's opus The Bonfire of The Vanities.

Critics are already lauding Brothers by comparing it to Bonfire, but one is authentic Dickensian down and the other is serviceable fiberfill — and, in this instance, it's not the Chinese product that's the knockoff. Wolfe admirably aimed to be like Dickens, to write a huge social novel about New York City in the go-go 1980s and to make his points — as Dickens did — through comic hyperbole, repetition and cataloguing. All that was missing was the heart. (Did anyone really care about Wolfe's protagonist, Sherman McCoy?)

In Dickens' hands, artifice is a technique that's more profoundly affecting than realism, and Yu Hua also possesses this mysterious Dickensian gift. The world and characters of Brothers are ostentatiously exaggerated; at times, readers might feel as though they're reading a fairy tale or even a bawdy limerick. But the emotions that these self-conscious narrative techniques elicit are powerfully genuine. Indeed, by the final page of Brothers, Hua's "anti-hero," Baldy Li, has joined the ranks of those Dickensian literary characters, like David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Esther Summerson, to name a few, who seem to have an autonomous existence separate from the books that give them life.

Brothers opens in the present, with an anonymous third-person narrator describing Baldy Li, a middle-aged billionaire entrepreneur, sitting atop his gold-plated toilet seat and fantasizing about buying a ticket on a Russian space shuttle, since there is no longer anyone left on Earth whom he loves. His stepbrother, Song Gang, is dead, and Baldy wants to carry his ashes along and place them in orbit, so that Gang will be "perpetually traveling between the moon and the stars." A beautiful sentiment, but relations between the two men weren't always so loving. Yu Hua's novel zooms backward to the marriage between Baldy's mother and Gang's father that united the two boys and to the earliest intimations that Baldy was going to be an id to be reckoned with. When he was barely 8, Baldy made a name for himself in the family's home village of Liu Town in eastern China by unselfconsciously masturbating on benches and electrical poles. At 14, he was caught peeping at women at a public pit toilet, earning him the nickname "King of Butts." Already a budding businessman, Baldy proceeds to peddle lurid descriptions of the butt of the prettiest girl in town to the shopkeepers. When the Cultural Revolution arrives, Song Fanping, the boy's father (who is a teacher) is imprisoned and tortured, and the abandoned boys wander around the town so hungry that, as the narrator puts it, "they didn't have a fart left to eat." Years later, when Baldy, who is now a factory director, sets his cap for the town beauty (whose butt he has already checked out) and she falls instead for Song Gang, the brothers become estranged.

That's a sliver of the family story set against the larger political and social upheavals that have marked China over the past half-century. What you can't appreciate from that minuscule summary is how Yu Hua tells this epic story — slowly, ritually. For instance, besides the brothers themselves, there's a gaggle of secondary characters here, villagers reminiscent of characters out of the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem: the dentist Yanker Yu, Blacksmith Tong, Tailor Zhang and so forth. Every time the story lurches forward these characters step onstage to give their two cents of commentary. So, when Baldy decides to become an entrepreneur and manufacture "Baldy Brand clothing," he solicits capital from each one of these tradespeople, promising that they'll be allowed to name the labels that will be affixed to a specific article of clothing his factory will make: For instance, the dentist is offered "Tooth Brand Underwear"; the cafe owner, "Meat Bun Bra." But the ceremonial repetitions of character and dialogue aren't always played for laughs, such as the day the young Baldy and Song Gang spot a fly-covered corpse lying in the street and slowly come to realize who they're looking at:

"He's wearing Papa's sandals," [says Song Gang].

"He's wearing Papa's shirt."

Brothers is a tremendous novel in tone and historical scope and narrative technique. It extends from hardscrabble images of overwork and suffering to surreal images of gaudy cultural self-promotion, ending with the National Virgin Beauty Contest — sponsored by Baldy, of course. In recognition of this terrific literary achievement, I think that, instead of the Year of the Ox, this should be the Year of Yua Hua.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.