In a nutshell
‘Brothers’ is about two stepbrothers, Baldy Li and Song Gang, who were brought together by death. Song Gang’s dad married Baldy Li’s mom after Baldy Li’s birth dad died tragically in a grotesque and comical incident. In the beginning I was a little put off by some of these explicit scenes and the constant use of vulgar language (and not to mention also the detailed descriptions of butts!). But after putting up with all of that, I was rewarded by a very heart-rending story of the stepbrothers who grew up in Liu Town, a small town in Shanghai, during the Cultural Revolution. Baldy Li, crafty and crass, while Song Gang, his total opposite, honest and gentle, are fiercely loyal to each other until they both fell in love with lin Hong, the most beautiful woman in Liu Town.
What I liked
Definitely the humour and charm that made up for its vulgarity. There was this scene where a bunch of kids were supposed to relay Baldy Li’s undying love for Lin Hong by saying, ‘Baldy Li wants to court you. Are you ready?’ Curious, they asked Baldy Li what’s ‘to court’, to which Baldy Li replied, ‘To court means to marry someone, to sleep together at night.’ Giggling, they repeated his message to Baldy Li, ‘Baldy Li wants to court you! Get married! Sleep with you! Are you ready?’ and trod off. Baldy Li called out to them not to mention about the sleeping and marrying part. Half way through their journey to meeting Lin Hong, they totally forgotten the word ‘court’ and they happened to chance upon Poet Zhao (One of Baldy Li’s nemesis) who overheard them arguing about it. So Poet Zhao told them the word should be intercourse. So when they arrived at the knitting factory where they were supposed to call out that message to Lin Hong, they ended up shouting, ‘Baldy Li wants to have intercourse with you!’
The relationship between Baldy Li and Song Gang. I salute Yu Hua and his translators for being able to capture such an important element of the novel so well that I cried and laughed with the stepbrothers throughout the whole of volume 1. As different as night and day they were, the stepbrothers were inseparable. Song Gang, being the elder brother, made a promise to Li Lan, saying, ‘Even if I only have one bowl of rice left, I’ll give it to Baldy Li to eat, and even if I have only a single piece of clothing, I’ll give it to Baldy Li to wear.’
‘Brothers’ would be a pleasurable read if you can put up with the perversion and vulgarities. But Yu Hua kind of prepares you for it at the very beginning, because if you can’t bear the explicit descriptions of Baldy Li’s butt-peeking experience and the grotesque narration of Baldy Li’s stepfather, Song Fanping, hoisting Baldy Li’s father from a cesspool, then you either put the book away or be mentally prepared for more outrageous ones like hymen-inspections and talks of women body parts.
Originally printed in two parts (2005 & 2006), ‘Brothers’ has officially sold more than a million copies in China. (The current version I have, are the two volumes combined into one book) The first part tells how the stepbrothers live through Cultural Revolution and how they looked out for each other when they had nobody else to rely on. The second is about how everyone was trying to survive during the ‘shift’ of China’s economy.