Oh Brother

 

Early in Yu Hua's novel Brothers, young Baldy Li sticks his head into a hole in a public toilet and hovers inches above the putrid waste below, all for a glimpse of naked female bottoms on the far side of the partition. For the next 600-plus pages of this satire of modern China, the reader is suspended in similar fashion — curious but teetering dangerously close to the muck.

The two-volume, best-selling Chinese edition of Brothers was published amid great fanfare in 2005 and 2006, and constituted the first major work in a decade from the author chiefly famed for To Live — a depiction of revolutionary society adapted for the screen by Zhang Yimou. This new English translation of Brothers excellently captures its beauty and high farce.

The book tells the story of two siblings' struggles through the turmoil of the Mao era and the country's transformation under Deng Xiaoping. The coarse, shameless Baldy and his handsome, trustworthy stepbrother Song Gang grow up poor during the Cultural Revolution. They watch as their father is persecuted to death and their mother debilitated with grief. They are orphaned as teenagers and a battle for survival bonds the boys together. But once China adopts capitalism in the 1980s, their paths diverge. The wily Baldy becomes an entrepreneur; Song Gang languishes as a worker in a state-owned factory.

 

Yu has a flair for the macabre — in one scene, a man who has been tortured by Red Guards commits suicide by driving a nail through his skull — but there's humor in between the horror. Having made a fortune trading scrap, Baldy decides to launch a contest to find the country's most beautiful virgin. The "Inaugural National Virgin Beauty Competition" is a punchy spoof of the Beijing Olympics, complete with salivating sponsors, a city leveled and rebuilt for out-of-town guests and a contestant who wins by sleeping with the judges. Portraits of contemporary China are rarely sharper or more savage.