Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Review: Yu Hua's "Brothers"

Yu Hua came to prominence as an author in China with his first works, including To Live which was filmed by no less than Zhang Yimou.

Brothers is his first work in a decade. It is a long novel, more than 650 pages in English translation, and covers the years from immediately before the Cultural Revolution up to the present.

The “brothers” are actually step-brothers and totally loyal to and supportive of each other as they develop through adolescence and into adulthood.

This occurs during the years of the Cultural Revolution and Yu Hua embraces to the full the genre of “scar literature” for this phase of his book, painting the decade-long period as one of unremitting cruelty and indifference. (“Scar literature”, or “literature of the wounded”, emerged around 1978 as intellectuals and bourgeois rightists who had been struggled against during the Cultural Revolution sought through literature to win sympathy under the conditions of the Deng ascendancy. With the publication of Jung Chang’s notorious Wild Swans, the genre and its associated creations created a market niche in the West.)

Of the two brothers, Baldy Li is the more prominent, both as a character and as a literary device. He is developed into a latter-day Ah Q, Lu Xun’s 1921 character propelled by an over-arching ego into the self-delusion that every defeat he suffers is some kind of spiritual victory. In Baldy Li’s case, however, he really does succeed – at some things at least – and that merely compounds his self-delusion because these are ultimately not the things that are most important to him.

The other brother, Song Gang, is modest and unaffected and tries desperately to stay loyal to both his brother and his wife only to be eventually destroyed by both of them.

The undoing of the relationship between the brothers occurs as China enters an era in which to get rich is glorious. With little apparent leadership or guidance from the Communist Party, this pursuit of enrichment becomes a source of social corruption and moral decay.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted: the language that comes from Baldy Li is, shall we say, rural, and the exploration of moral decay verges on the gynaecological.
Someone is always being beaten up or physically and verbally abused.

A best-seller in China, the book has attracted great controversy. Some of this revolves around its alleged lack of realism. This is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of satire. Should Jonathon Swift be dismissed because a race of tiny people pegs out his hero, Gulliver?

Yu Hua is holding a mirror to Chinese society, but like the old distorting mirrors that we all remember laughing at ourselves in at the Show, its absurdities and exaggerations are essential to enabling his (Chinese) readers to see what their society has become in the very capitalist “socialist market economy”.

Exposing the crassness of the market economy does not necessarily make this a book that serves a progressive social purpose.

The author practiced as a dentist before taking to writing. He worked for a living, but not as a proletarian worker and he has no positive proletarian role models in this book.

The two characters who most obviously display qualities such as courage and compassion are Song Gang’s school teacher father, the son of a landlord, and Mama Su who runs a roadside stall selling steamed buns.

Working people yes, and working people of low social status and low income, but people whose work is outside of the industrial proletariat and who really epitomize the outlook of an impoverished petty-bourgeoisie.

It is really this class, at the mercy of China’s new rich, but unlikely to be the standard-bearers of a resurgent socialist movement and perhaps fearful still of the power of the working class, for whom this book is written.

Lu Xun is unlikely to be displaced from his pedestal as China’s greatest modern writer by Yu Hua: Lu Xun only took some tens of pages to create the enduring Ah Q and his writings served the cause of the revolutionary emancipation of the workers and peasants, led by the Chinese Communist Party.

Nevertheless, Baldy Li serves a contemporary purpose in exposing the foibles of China’s embrace of capitalism, and he would enjoy the fact that his creator has had such success – and controversy -with this book.

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