As usual, the townspeople of Liu were like frogs at the bottom of a well, with no perspective on the outside world. —Hu Yua, Brothers
Say it plain, the poet said. She was talking about the inauguration, but it’s a phrase that rings true the deeper one plunges into the plain-spoken epic that is Yu Hua’s Brothers. Many authors use the epic form as an excuse for skimping on their diet of pared-down language and purposeful narratives. Those books then become great, sack-like things, bursting at the seams with flabby digressions and indulgent riffs just begging to be slashed by the editor’s blue pencil. It’s the literary equivalent of putting on sweatpants before Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, these exercises in excess have their place, allowing both authors and readers to put aside the thin minimalisms of modern fiction for a banquet redolent of an earlier age.
But what Hua’s novel—a bestseller in China, where it was published in two volumes in 2005 and 2006—does so memorably is take on a gargantuan-sized narrative but relay it in clear, short, simple prose that continually hones in like a laser on a small clutch of characters and confines itself almost entirely to one small town. Taking such a spacious story—which sprawls from the ‘60s up to the present day, and incorporates along the way just about the entire modern history of China—and relating it in so plain-spoken a manner takes nerve, and also an uncommon amount of discipline. The result, though, is a work of rare scope and grandeur. Without wasting time on scene-setting description or sidebars on the momentous events occurring all around his characters, Hua makes the historical unusually personal.
And all this from a novel that starts literally in the toilet.
The brothers of Hua’s title are actually stepbrothers, raised in the small village of Liu Town. “Baldy” Li is the more rambunctious, fated to be both social outcast and Trump-esque success, depending on the country’s mood. Song Gang is quiet and bookish, the kind of guy who tends to get eaten up by the tides of history. Being the more outgoing, Baldy Li gets pride of first placement in the plot, which starts with him in modern times as a tycoon sitting on his “famously gold-plated toilet seat” and dreaming about blowing $20 million to catch a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle. It’s the sort of thing that tycoons do once they’ve run out of things to spend money on, and is a nice, sharp foreshadowing of where Baldy Li’s ambition will bring him—and China.
The novel then flashes back to his pre-Cultural Revolution childhood, when Baldy Li was just a kid whose mother shaved his head and who people laughed at when she said he was just a chip off the old block. They laughed because Baldy Li’s father had perished in picaresque fashion: falling head-first into the pit beneath a public toilet (where he had been leaning down and peeping through a gap in the wall at the rear ends of women in the adjoining toilets) and drowning. They laughed because years later, Baldy Li would become famous in the town for doing the same peeping but getting caught and paraded through town in shame. Chip off the old block, indeed.
Hua spends an unexpected amount of time on the ramifications of Baldy Li and his father’s peeping, circling back to it over the whole first section of the novel, almost to exhausting effect. Song Fanping, the man who surprised Baldy Li’s father in the toilet, causing him to fall and die, later marries the man’s widow, Li Lan. They give birth to Song Gang. One of the women whom Baldy Li peeps at is town beauty Lin Hong, whom he and Song Gang will fall into a tortured three-way love affair with. The same men who shamed Baldy Li for his peeping later come and bribe him with offers of the local restaurant’s “house special noodles” (an item of such decadence that it’s given nearly divine placement here) just to hear him relate in glorious detail what exactly he saw. And so it goes.
It’s an effective method, however for illustrating the small-village aspects of a place like Liu Town, where it’s nearly impossible for a person to escape the fate that the townspeople have picked out for them—until history intervenes and either sets them free or traps them. Song Fanping is idolized as one of Liu Town’s most upstanding citizens, the story of one dramatic dunk he made in a basketball game still made the rounds years later. But when the Cultural Revolution comes, churning the townspeople into a finger-pointing, frenzy Song Fanping is one of the first to be sacrificed. Baldy Li serves as town scapegoat, until the winds of capitalism sweep through the tattered remnants of Mao’s state and he becomes one of those raw, uncouth, titanic businessmen who flourish in the new and unfettered global economy. He even opens up a factory in the same warehouse where his stepfather was, years earlier, jailed and executed for (supposedly) being the kind of counterrevolutionary capitalist whom his stepson would later be so lauded for exemplifying. The once-prim and upright Lin Hong becomes a madam. And so it goes.
Hua drifts rather amiably back and forth between Baldy Li’s rise to power and Song Gang’s quieter route towards small-scale respectability, their brotherhood bond powerful even before Li Lan dies when they’re still teenagers, casting them adrift in a changing world. The momentous sweep of changing eras is a strong force here, but Hua keeps it more as background scenery, history passing like mist. Even though Liu Town explodes in size and changes in appearance like any once-sleepy burg does in boom times, Hua holds on throughout to the feel of the old village, the sense that people are always watching, commenting. There is hardly a single event here that happens where some people just strolling past don’t witness it and have something to say.
In one scene, where Baldy Li has just finished beating one of his former tormentors and leaving him bloody and crumpled under a tree, Hua notes that “passersby crowded around him for a while, pointing and offering their opinions.” The casual references to Chinese literary classics like Journey to the West and Three Kingdoms are plenty, as are the near-constant dropping of fatalistic (and not always helpful) aphorisms like “If you are fated to have only fifteen ounces of rice in this life, then even if you go away to seek your fortune, you still won’t end up a with full pound.” It all contributes to an enveloping sense of the world that Hua’s history-buffeted characters travel in, where the chatter of supporting characters creates a whole sonic landscape that any amount of description could not hope to match.
There are hints here of Gunter Grass’s epoch-defining Tin Drum in the historical perspective that Hua brings to his tale, not to mention something of Dreiser’s tragic sense of how humanity gets trampled when a people turn like a herd and thunders toward the promise of wealth in a newly industrializing society. But Hua’s sharply unadorned language is all his own, carrying a ripe and pungent tone particularly well-suited for this kind of satirical epic. Hua clearly set out to write a novel that meant to encapsulate the whole soul of modern China, while managing to do so in a way that not for a second feels self-important or striving. This is the epic as plain-spoken brawl, one with blood on its face, a tear in the eye, and a grin on the lips.
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