NEW YORK: PANTHEON, 2009
641 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0375424991, HARDCOVER
Reviewed by Howard Giskin
Brothers is an epic saga of step-brothers, Baldi Li and Song Gang, whose lives span four decades from the Cultural Revolution to the present Socialist-Capitalist society in China. Yu Hua uses deliberately coarse language that reflects not only the dust, dirt, ugliness, greed, stupidity, but also the humor, endurance, and cleverness of a people buffeted by change. Brothers evokes the grotesque, but also beauty, through rough, racy, earthy language, and might bear comparison with Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
While Brothers chronicles the vicissitudes of the “brothers” Baldi Li and Song Gang, the book follows them in epic style over the course of four tumultuous decades. Some of the more interesting characters are less prominent figures, like swindler Wandering Zhou, and Song Gang’s biological father (Baldi Li’s step-father), Song Fanping. He is perhaps the most sympathetically and roundly portrayed individual in the book, and is the victim of unspeakable violence during the Cultural Revolution.
Brothers is not recommended for the secondary classroom because of graphic violence and frequent sexually explicit language, though it may be appropriate for university courses dealing with modern China in the second half of the twentieth century up to the present. I would recommend that instructors who wish to use Yu Hua’s novel include ample secondary historical and or sociological sources to provide context, as well as, if possible, non-fiction chronicles or autobiographical writings, to create as wide and as broad a perspective as possible on China in the past half century.