Over the last couple of months, I’ve been dedicating odd hours to not reading Brothers, the new novel by Chinese author Yu Hua.
It started a few months ago, round about the time that we had all that fuss about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. That book was getting a lot of coverage, and I was thinking of getting hold of a copy and reviewing it myself, but it was an awfully big book, and it was being very ably reviewed elsewhere. Still, I liked the idea of grappling with a big, translated monster, and so I was intrigued when I heard about the imminent arrival of Yu Hua’s Brothers.
Brothers sounded to me like a very interesting prospect: Yu Hua is big news in China, an ex-dentist who claims to have become an author because he thought that the inside of the mouth was “the place with the ugliest scenes on Earth,” and life at the cultural centre looked easy. He started out writing avant-garde novels, and is now one of the best-selling authors in China.
The novel itself follows two stepbrothers in China from the Cultural Revolution through to the Consumer Revolution, which has to be a pretty fascinating journey, and one that’s relevant to those of us who make up the other four-fifths of the world’s population.
Reading interviews with Yu Hua online, like this one in the NY Times Weekend Magazine, I discovered a little more about the story. Apparently, Brothers is a pretty controversial title in China: the left wing hates it for a negative representation of the Cultural Revolution, and the right hates it for the way it deals with the swing towards capitalism. It’s been accused of obscenity, and indeed parts of the story do sound rather grubby: one of the two characters spies on women in a public toilet, and apparently there is torture, male breast enlargement, and some sort of mucking about with hymens. While reports suggest that Yu Hua is no longer quite as subversive and experimental as he was in his earlier work, it doesn’t sound like he’s exactly become placid and middle class, either. In 2006, an aggressive collection of criticism of Brothers was published under the title Pulling Yu Hua’s Teeth (he used to be a dentist, you see…). The title essay is translated on Paper Republic here (contains spoilers).
Originally printed in two parts (2005 & 2006), Brothers has officially sold more than a million copies in China. Take into account the pirated editions (rife in China), and the actual sales are likely to be more than double that.
So, I’ve been gathering all of this information, reading the interviews, and watching with interest. I’ve picked the book up several times and turned it over. I’ve even mulled over the imprint of my copy—Picador Asia—and the publishing concept that lies behind those four little letters. The only thing I haven’t actually done is read the damn thing. You see, it’s just under 650 pages, and that represents two or three other books unread, unreviewed. That wouldn’t necessarily stop me—nothing wrong with a big fat book once in a while—but in the case of Brothers, whenever the pressure to read it starts to build, I can let off a little steam by reading about it.
I’d like to recommend reading Brothers… but as I haven’t yet read it, I can’t. However, I can definitely recommend spending a little time not reading the book, perhaps starting with some of the links above. It’s fascinating.