Books

Brothers by Yu Hua

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.


Brothers

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780375424991
Contributors: Carlos Rojas, Eileen Cheng-Yin Chow (Translators)
Author: Yu Hua
Price: $29.95
Length: 641
Formats: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-01
Amazon
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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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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