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And Nothing Remains

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.

The Cover of Brothers, by Yu HuaBrothers 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.

21 Comments on “How to not read a book: Brothers by Yu Hua”

  1. Darren Says:

    Does China have a middle class, then?

  2. Rob Says:

    apparently

  3. John Self Says:

    I haven’t read it either, despite being supplied with two copies by Picador, proof and finished. You forgot to say that it’s not only 650 pages long, but that almost each and every one of those pages is covered in very small type.

    However, I have enjoyed reading about reading about it. Well worth the effort.

  4. John Self Says:

    Oh and I can’t quite get out of my head that the author’s name sounds a little like “You whore.” Sorry but.

  5. Rob Says:

    John: I actually edited the word “dense” out from before “type”, because I thought it might be overly picky. But now that you’ve said it too…

    And yes, I have the same issue with his name. Although sometimes I also get “Yoo Hoo!”

    Glad you enjoyed reading about reading about 🙂

  6. Candy Schultz Says:

    I haven’t read all that much positive about 2666. Are you going to read that one?

  7. Rob Says:

    Well, Candy, I’m not not going to read it. But, in all probability, it’s likely that I’m not going to read it.

  8. John Self Says:

    Rob, you are Geoff Dyer and I claim my five pounds!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Great that you are stuck on a modern work, Rob — I have Victor Hugo and Cervantes on the shelf, looked at every now and then and then put back. And I do like long novels, but this one and 2666 I will be giving a miss.

  10. Rob Says:

    John: Now I wish I’d read Geoff Dyer! As it is, I want to say something witty, but I’m trapped up to my knees in a bog of ignorance!

    Kevin: I started Don Q once, but didn’t get very far.It was a terrible edition – all typos and weird translations – but I can’t only blame that. Let’s wait: one day they might find the play Shakespeare based on it… (or was it only a part of it?)

  11. Candy Schultz Says:

    But Hugo and Cervantes are wonderful. Thanks to all of you now I don’t have to feel stupid for not wanting to read 2666.

  12. Rob Says:

    Candy – maybe I can blame my translation of Don Q after all… although, John, if you stop by this post again, can you remind us what Martin Amis wrote about Don Q? I seem to remember it being slightly offensive. In The War Against Cliche?

  13. John Self Says:

    The Dyer thing, Rob, was just because your rhetorical twinkle in comment 7 reminded me of the kind of thing he would say, particularly in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

    “I have an idea for a self-help book,” I said. “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.”

    “But you can’t be bothered to write it, right?”

    “You stole my punch line,” I said.

    “It’s a good idea, though. Chapter One: ‘Emptying Your Mind’.”

    “Oh, I haven’t got that far yet.”

    “How far have you got?”

    “Not far at all. ‘Near’ would be more accurate than ‘far’.”

    “So how near have you got?”

    “I am near to where I started – but I am even nearer to giving up.”

    Anyway, Amis on the Don. Here’s a fillet of his choicest slapdowns:

    While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of outright unreadability. This reviewer should know, because he has just read it. The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching 75% of the whole), inhumanly dull. … When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 – the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right: not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.

    Written in the days before novel-reviewing – indeed, in the days before novels – Don Quixote was probably never intended to be read in the modern manner: that is, straight through. Group or family recitations of a chapter a night were, in all likelihood, the most that Cervantes expected anyone to manage. His epic is epic in length only; it has no pace, no drive. An anthology, an agglomeration, it simply accrues. The question ‘What happens next?’ has no meaning because there is no next in Don Quixote’s world: there is only more.

    […]

    At this point in dawns on the reader that there are still 700 pages to go. Cervantes, you feel, will have to change tack pretty soon – while his principals remain in one piece. And so it proves. Cervantes does begin to diversify. He begins to pad.

    And goes on padding. Sancho and the Don are reduced to helpless onlookers as Cervantes just goes on padding, using all the trash, all the hay and straw, of popular contemporary literature. It is a bizarrely shameless spectacle, as if Senor Fuentes, say, had bulked out The Death of Artemio Cruz with half a dozen supermarket romances.

    […]

    The author took a decade to recover from the first part of Don Quixote before completing and publishing the second. The modern reader, of course, enjoys no such holiday, and soon finds himself eyeing the fortress of Volume II. …Crossing and uncrossing your legs, and always wondering what else you could be doing, you follow the poor enchanted knight and the swag-bellied lurcher towards their remote epiphany.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks. All I needed was the cheery Amis thoughts to get me ready. With so many new books on hand, Cervantes was going to be put on hold for some months anyway — with luck I will have forgotten the exchange above by the time I try it. Hugo may come first — I certainly enjoyed the musical.

  15. Candy Schultz Says:

    Of course you all know that Shakespeare wrote Don Quixote don’t you.

  16. Rob Says:

    John: Thanks for taking hte time to type out all that! I knew there was a reason I liked Amis, back before the day that I read Yellow Dog! I think I’m going to have to track down a copy of The War Against Cliché… thanks also for the Dyer quote. Having spent a good part of the morning assembling book cases, I’m fully ready to start getting my hands on some new authors.

    Anybody here read Hugo?

    Candy, your comment reminded me of a piece of overheard conversation mentioned in a documentary about Sherlock Holmes. It was a mother and child talking, and the child said, “Mum, was Sherlock Holmes real?” The mother replied, “No, of course not. He was a fictional character. You know, like WIlliam Shakespeare.”

  17. Rob Says:

    Going back to Yu Hua for a second, Picador Twittered me a link to this blog post about Brothers in the context of new Chinese literature.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The very first ever entry on my blog is Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, fabulous book. Candy is quite right, Hugo is marvellous.

    And mentioning Candy, Candy, I don’t much fancy 2666 either.

    Stuart, great blog entry, very funny. Do you feel at all like you have read it, now you’ve spent all this time not reading it?

  19. Rob Says:

    I feel a bit like I’ve read it, but mostly summing up all of these things made me really want to read it… (I take it you were talking to me?)

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was indeed Rob, I look forward to hearing more about it when you do read it.

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