Yu Hua (余华) the author of To Live, a novel that was adapted by Zhang Yimou into a film, released his newest work of fiction in a decade this past July. Entitled Brothers (兄弟), this novel tells the story of a pair of (step) brothers and the trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence in the midst of the Cultural Revolution.
It’s an absurdist, tragi-comic, Cultural Revolution tearjerker and not a half bad story, though a bit predictable. It’s a Cultural Revolution era story, so you expect a lot of undue suffering and early death.
While Shanghaiist hasn’t read Yu’s other works, but we have watched To Live, and Brothers reminded us of this movie, because of that strange admixture of absurdity and tragedy that keeps the reader on a strange kind of tenterhooks. It’s not as if you don’t know whether to laugh or cry — you do. During the funny parts, you laugh, during the tragic parts, you cry (and we confess to having done both). But the strange thing is that Yu alternates these with a rhythm that becomes more predictable the novel goes on. You find yourself laughing and then feeling foolish because as you continue reading, you feel that sense of foreboding that comes when you know good times are just a set up for a tragedy that is sure to ensue.
There were times when we wondered if some of the scenes of cruelty during the Cultural Revolution described in this book could really have happened. This book is not memoir, nonfiction, or documentary — the absurdist and almost magical realist quality of certain passages remind you of that — but even if the torture and callousness described didn’t happen in actuality, it still manages to resonate as an emotionally truthful portrait of a catastrophic era in Chinese history. We’re sure some critics will yawn at the prospect of reading yet another story from the Cultural Revolution, and Shanghaiist admits that apprehension as well — but on the other hand, as the Chinese are still in some sense experiencing the “cultural fallout” of those years (this is just personal opinion) perhaps it’s still something worth reflecting about before the Super Voice girls and the pop culture armies obliterate from younger generations’ collective memory those episodes of history that will stand us in good stead as we stumble into an uncertain future — how people managed to maintain their dignity and forge real human relations in spite of the inhumanity of the times in which they lived.
But be reminded that this is only part one, since Yu has conceived of this book as being one about a generation of Chinese (featuring characters around the author’s age) who were children during the Cultural Revolution but came of age during the reform era in the late 1970s. They straddle two completely different times. One of the main characters (one of the two brothers) in the book, Li Guangtou, goes from being a n’er do well type to being a multimillionaire. We will be treated to the story of how this happens in the next book.
A couple of chapters of the book are on the web for you to peruse. And here is Danwei’s post about it.
Brothers by Yu Hua。 2005 Shanghai Wenyi Publishing。
《兄弟》(上册），余华著。 2005 上海文艺出版社。
Price: 16 RMB
Available at most good bookshops around town.
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