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BOOK REVIEW

In a sprawling satire of China, a bit of sweetness and light

By Renée Graham
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2009
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A sprawling, bawdy epic that crackles with life's joys, sorrows, and misadventures, "Brothers" is one of the great literary achievements of this nascent year. Released as two volumes in author Yu Hua's native China in 2005 and 2006, this masterful novel was an instant hit, selling more than 1 million copies. Not surprisingly, many of China's image-obsessed officials and pundits were angered by Yu's subversive portrait of the nation at its most fitful, oppressive, and pathologically capitalistic.

Four turbulent decades of Chinese history are filtered through the lives of Baldy Li and Song Gang, the novel's title siblings. They're actually stepbrothers whose deep bond is forged when Baldy Li's mother, Li Lan, marries Song Fanping, Song Gang's father. Despite their closeness, the boys couldn't be more different. Song Gang is as polite and handsome as his father, while his brother is as squat as a mailbox and as wily as a stray cat.

A born entrepreneur, Baldy Li proclaims that he loves "money, genius, and women." His loves collide early on when he is caught trying to sneak a peek at bare bottoms in the women's toilet. Baldy Li quickly realizes that the police want to hear every detail of his outhouse antics - not for their investigation, but their own prurient purposes. Soon, he's telling the salacious details to every man in town, but only if they first buy him a bowl of three-flavored house special noodles; for a story this juicy, he reasons, plain noodles just won't do.

For a time, life is relatively quiet in Liu Town among its colorfully named denizens, including Blacksmith Tong, Poet Zhao, and Popsicle Wang. Yet this is the time of China's Cultural Revolution and its blind, fearful devotion to Mao Zedong. Yanker Yu, the local dentist, displays healthy teeth plucked from the unwilling mouths of "class enemies." Chest-thumping rallies give way to finger-pointing "struggle sessions," where people are beaten and humiliated for perceived transgressions.

Baldy Li and Song Gang's family life comes undone when their father, whose only "crime" is having been born into the land-owning class, is imprisoned. The town unravels in a kind of collective madness, and the images are indelible. A man, savagely beaten, still tries to board a bus to pick up his wife; two children shoo away buzzing flies, only to find the tortured body of their father.

Under these long shadows Baldy Li and Song Gang come of age, and through the years, their allegiance will strengthen and shatter, their personal fates and fortunes will sparkle and fade. There is little doubt Baldy Li will prosper; in many ways, he is modern China, all craftiness and cunning, determined to succeed at any cost. He can outtalk, outhustle, and outwit all comers.

Song Gang is a gentler sort, content to work in a factory and remain with his wife, the lovely Lin Hong. With his small-town ways, he's also everything a bustling new China wants to leave behind, and those who don't evolve are inevitably crushed beneath the indifferent wheels of progress. Both ribald and elegiac, "Brothers" is a satire, but also a rebuke of how China, in its breathless pursuit of success, has compromised its soul.

Some critics have accused Yu, one of contemporary China's most celebrated authors, of creating an excessively tawdry snapshot of his country, and at one point in the novel, Yu seems to tweak his dissenters when the publicity-hungry Baldy Li shouts, "I want there to be controversy, and I want them to discuss this endlessly." Yet there are no empty provocations here, though there are some mind-bending moments in this book's 600-plus pages, such as a beauty pageant for virgins.

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but only until one considers that China's recent history includes a Miss Artificial Beauty contest for plastic surgery recipients, and more infamously, baby formula tainted with melamine to make the product show greater levels of protein to garner higher prices. Compared with real babies poisoned for profit, a grifter selling bogus hymens in Yu's boundlessly imaginative novel doesn't seem so outlandish after all.

Renée Graham is a freelance writer.

BROTHERS By Yu Hua

Translated, from the Chinese, by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas

Pantheon, 641 pp., $29.95

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