By Luciana Leitão
It is true that books are not measured by size. Yet, if the more than 600 pages of the novel Brothers, by Chinese author Yu Hua, can tell us anything is that, in this case, size equals excitement. This is a beautiful page turner, filled with precious details, rich language and style resources which add depth to the story.
This is Yu Hua’s fifth novel — it documents 4o years of deep changes in China, from the perspective of two stepbrothers. The story starts on a toilet, with fourteen-year-old Baldly Li caught peeping at women’s bottoms, like his father had done.
From then on, we go back in time to his sexual awakening, his fame as a compulsive public masturbator, which continues into adulthood. But the story is also about his brother, Song Gang, and their growth together, while China goes through a series of social and political convulsions.
It is a bestseller in China, even though it is quite bold in the telling of political events, such as the Cultural Revolution and the opening of China to overseas.
It’s a surreal tale that resorts to the funniest black comedy details to do social and political critique. Just to give you an example, the older stepbrother, Baldly Li, becomes famous for creating a beauty pageant for virgins, while Song Gang has one of his breasts enlarged to sell a line of breast-enlargement gels for women in the countryside.
Critics have not often praised this work, even though I do see it as brilliant. Brothers is one of the best books about China I have ever read — a funny and ironic portrait of modern China. “My stories may be extreme, but you can find all of this in China,” he said in an interview to Chinese media.
In the early 80’s, when China opened to the west, foreign literature started entering the country. His favourite authors? Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. By reading Brothers, one can easily relate to the blurred line between reality and fantasy, so characteristic of these authors.
The surreality of the facts and descriptions featured in Brothers reflect a critical view on the arrival of capitalism to modern China.It is a great novel that travels through China’s history.