China’s history is sad. I am sure the same could be said of many other regions’ histories, but still… Brothers is an epic tale of (you guessed it) two brothers. Baldy Li and Song Gang are half-brothers that are united through hardship. Baldy Li (his nickname because he always has his head shaved) is the mischievous one who uses his smarts for both good and evil. Song Gang is the soft spoken and honest brother who is loyal to a fault. Brothers follows them through their childhood during the Cultural Revolution up until nearly present-day. China changes so much during these decades, but can the bond of brotherhood withstand it?
Despite how sad the novel can be I was surprised at the amount of humor in it as well. Yu Hua has a way of keeping a good balance of humor and sorrow. Without the humor the book might have been an emotional chore to read through. Humor is sometimes difficult to convey through text and I am sure it is even more difficult to convey it through a translated work, but for the most part it works. The terrible things that happen to the brothers and their family isn’t for the weak-hearted, but there are also some rather vulgar (at least by American standards) scenes not pertaining to the Cultural Revolution. The first fifty pages focuses a lot on peeping at women’s butts in a public latrine for example. The latter half of the novel has an obsession with hymens and virginity. It can be jarring and a bit sexist to western readers, but it shows a raw side of humanity.
I would not say I enjoyed reading this novel, but I appreciated it and learned a lot. I was lucky enough to read an English translation alongside my boyfriend who read the Chinese version. He was able to point out things that I either did not understand or that was lost in translation. As a westerner I found quite a few scenes disturbing or overly dramatic, but, at least according to my boyfriend, there is quite a bit of truth in Brothers which is both sad and a bit unsettling.