Between Communism and Capitalism: Review of Brothers
Yu Hua’s ambition here is to create an epic of China’s last four decades: a portrait of the country’s transformation from political thuggery to money worship. In the interests of achieving a faithful likeness, he has discarded the cool, sparing voice that made his name as a serious novelist between the 1980s and 1990s, and opted for crudeness in almost every respect: in the freakish protagonists and plot twists; in the repetitions and expletives; in the fountains of body fluids.
Contemporary China, Yu Hua has reasoned, “is so sick that a writer can’t pretend to be a doctor. Instead, the best one can do is admit that one is ill and try to describe the symptoms.” His decision to make his art imitate life works best in the first third of the book, set in the cultural revolution. Here, the coarseness of the language is well-matched to the horror of the violence, while the novel’s two most sympathetic characters – the brothers’ parents – are drawn skilfully enough for the reader to flinch at the tragedy of their lives.
As you trudge through the long post-Mao sections, though, the author’s refusal to process the raw material of the contemporary People’s Republic grows tiring. Yu Hua owes his immense literary fame in mainland China to a series of dark, highly controlled narratives about the moral disintegration of post-1949 society. In Brothers, he has taken the crafted restraint out of his nastiness, leaving plain nastiness. A few images are arresting enough to give you pause; the rest of the text bludgeons with exaggeration or facetious use of cliché. The novel is supposed to be funny, but mostly fails to be, because its tone and plot are so relentlessly hyperbolic that no punchline can properly stand out. Yu Hua is too busy jumping from one grotesquerie to another to give us a moment to contemplate their absurdity.