The lives of two stepbrothers, temperamental opposites nevertheless sworn to love and protect each other, are traced, in exuberant and exhausting detail, in this massive novel, originally published in Taiwan in two volumes in 2005 and 2006.
Chinese author Yu Hua (Cries in the Drizzle, 2007, etc.) creates a rich panorama of post-Mao China during the 1990s, when loose-cannon entrepreneur “Baldy Li” (Li Guan) and his gentle, scholarly “brother” Song Gang follow different paths, despite and because of their shared attraction to Lin Hong, the reigning beauty of the village (Liu Town) in which they grow up, after Baldy Li’s widowed mother Li Lan marries Song Gang’s handsome, intrepid father Song Fenping. When the latter is murdered for being a landowner supposedly unsympathetic to revolutionary principles, Li Lan wastes away, but lives long enough to extract her sons’ promises to honor Song Fenping’s loving nature. But when Song Gang achieves fulfillment in a quiet contemplative life, having won the hand of Lin Hong, Baldy Li hatches one hare-brained moneymaking scheme after another, enlisting creditors from several briskly characterized townsmen and reaching a peak of commercially viable vulgarity with the creation of a “National Virgin Beauty Competition,” whose contestants benefit from surgically implanted artificial hymens. Comparisons to China’s flamboyant image-building during the recent Beijing Olympics are doubtless inevitable. But the novel is even more interesting for the pointed, often hilarious connections Yu Hua makes between the care and manipulation (and voyeuristic observation) of female bodies, and the various “makeovers” to which modern China has subjected itself. The novel is cheerfully vulgar and obscene, insistently declarative and overemphatic. But it’s gripping throughout 600-plus pages, and it rises to a tremendous climax, after Baldy Li’s furious acquisitive energies have precipitated tragedy and created monsters that seem to have emerged, sweating and shrieking, from the realms of myth.
A deeply flawed great novel, akin to the best work of Zola, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and, arguably, Rabelais.