Yu Hua used writing to escape a career as a government dentist: "The mouth offers the worst scenic view in the world," the author once said. "I was still young and I wanted to see other more interesting things." Yu packs many of those things into this, China's best-ever selling novel. Brothers (translated by Eileen Cheng-Yin Chow and Carlos Rojas) goes over the same ground as his To Live, made into a film by Zhang Yimou, which detailed life before, through and beyond China's Cultural Revolution.
Rather than being a family saga, this novel has as its central characters two young stepbrothers, Song Gang and Baldy Li. Yu has said that "the Cultural Revolution brought out the full potential of Chinese imaginative powers. People invented crimes for each other... The crimes were usually made up of a series of stories." Here, the boys wander through the streets, peeping at women in toilets, witnessing political "struggle sessions" and acting as witnesses to the insanity around them: casual violence, gouts of blood, almost accidental murder.
Yu is at his best when unpicking moments of tragedy and following them to their conclusions. Around the many moving scenes, Yu paints the grand backdrop of Liu Town and its residents. They include Yanker Yu (the dentist) and Blacksmith Tong, as well as a ready audience of cripples, blind men, passers-by and the Two Men of Talent, Writer Liu and Poet Zhao.
Yu is good at capturing the strangeness of modern China, but with 76 chapters and 641 pages, there is no detour that the author does not pursue; no joke he fails to include. These detours can make the narrative episodic and sagging.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Brothers is that it tries to make sense of the last 50 years of China's history. This is modern China coming to terms with itself in a mixture of gore, laughter and self-mockery. Ultimately, this book feels like the uncut footage of a documentary: there is a good story in there, but far too much else packed in with it.