DAVE DAVIES, host:
The novel "Brothers" by award-winning Chinese writer Yu Hua was a bestseller when it was first published in China despite the fact that it satirizes the Cultural Revolution and the get-rich-quick spirit of the new capitalism. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Read "Brothers," Yu Hua's sensational, sweeping and satirical 600-plus page novel about life in a Chinese village from the earliest days of the Cultural Revolution to the giddy capitalist present, and you'll realize what's missing from a lot of other contemporary social novels, in particular, Tom Wolfe's opus, "The Bonfire Of The Vanities."
Critics are already lauding "Brothers" by comparing it to "Bonfire," but one is authentic down and the other is serviceable fiberfill. And in this instance, it's not the Chinese product that's the knock-off.
Wolfe admirably aimed to be like Dickens, to write a huge social novel about New York City in the go-go 80s and to make his points, as Dickens did, through comic hyperbole, repetitions and cataloguing. All that was missing was the heart. Did anyone really care about Wolfe's protagonist, Sherman McCoy?
In Dickens' hands, artifice is a technique that's more profoundly effecting than realism, and Yu Hua also possesses this mysterious Dickensian gift. The world and characters of "Brothers" are ostentatiously exaggerated. At times, readers might feel as though they're reading a fairy tale or even a bawdy limerick. But the emotions that these self-conscious narrative techniques elicit are powerfully genuine.
Indeed, by the final pages of "Brothers," Hua's anti-hero, Baldy Li, has joined the ranks of those Dickensian characters like David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Esther Summerson, to name a few, who seem to have an autonomous existence separate from the books that gave them life.
"Brothers" opens in the present with an anonymous third-person narrator describing Baldy Li, a middle-aged billionaire entrepreneur sitting atop his gold toilet seat and fantasizing about buying a ticket on a Russian space shuttle, since there is no longer anyone left on Earth whom he loves.
His step-brother, Song Gang,is dead, and Baldy wants to take his ashes along and place them in orbit so that Gang will be perpetually traveling between the moon and the stars. A beautiful sentiment, but relations between the two men weren't always so loving.
Yu Hua's novel zooms backwards to the marriage between Baldy's mother and Gang's father that united the two boys and to the earliest intimations that Baldy was going to be an id to be reckoned with. At 14, he was caught peeping on women at a public pit toilet, earning him the nickname, King of Butts. Already a budding businessman, Baldy proceeded to peddle lurid descriptions of the butt of the prettiest girl in town to the shopkeepers.
When the Cultural Revolution arrives, the boy's father, who's a teacher, is imprisoned and tortured, and the abandoned boys wander around the town so hungry that - as the narrator puts it - "they didn't have a fart left to eat." Years later, when Baldy, who's now a factory director, sets his cap for the town beauty and she falls instead for Song Gang, the brothers become estranged.
That's a sliver of the family story set against the larger political and social upheavals that have marked China over the past half-century. What you can't appreciate from the miniscule summary is how Yu Hua tells this epic story - slowly, ritually. For instance, besides the brothers themselves, there's a gaggle of secondary characters here, villagers reminiscent of characters out of the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem, the dentist Yanker Yu, Blacksmith Tong, and so forth. Every time the story lurches forward, these characters step onstage to give their two cents of commentary.
So when Baldy decides to become an entrepreneur and manufacture Baldy Brand Clothing, he solicits capital from each one of these trades people, promising that they'll be allowed to name the labels that will be affixed to a specific article of clothing his factory will make. For instance, the dentist is offered, "Tooth Brand Underwear"; the cafe owner, "Meat Bun Bra."
But the ceremonial repetitions of character and dialogue aren't always played for laughs, such as the day when the young Baldy and Song Gang spot a fly-covered corpse lying in the street and slowly come to realize who they're looking at. "He's wearing Papa's sandals," says Song Gong. "He's wearing papa's shirt."
"Brothers" is a tremendous novel in tone and historical scope and narrative technique. It extends from hardscrabble images of overwork and suffering to surreal images of gaudy cultural self-promotion, ending with a National Virgin Beauty Contest - sponsored by Baldy, of course.
In recognition of this terrific literary achievement, I think that instead of The Year of the Ox, this should be the Year of Yu Hua.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Brothers" by Yu Hua.
And this final note.
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Unknown Announcer: And the Grammy goes to - Francis Davis, for "Kind Of Blue, 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition."
(Soundbite of audience applause)
DAVIES: Jazz critic Francis Davis won a Grammy yesterday for the liner notes he wrote for the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Miles Davis album, "Kind of Blue." Francis is a member of the Fresh Air extended family. He's married to Terry Gross and is a former jazz critic for Fresh Air. Some would say, so what? We say, way to go, Francis. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.