Brother country

Janice Poon

If you still haven't read any forecasts for 2009 and the Year of the Ox, the novel Brothers might shed some light on the immediate future.

It is not from fortune-tellers or fung shui masters. Nor is it from astrology or horoscopes; instead it is considered a realistic and extraordinary encapsulation of modern China.

It was created by Yu Hua, one of the mainland's most highly acclaimed contemporary novelists. Brothers is the latest work of his 25 years-and-counting as a writer that has been translated into English.

Imagine a teenager making a profit from peeks at the bare bottom of a well-known beauty in a little town and later becoming a multimillionaire through collecting scrap. Consider a multimillionaire confessing a miserable story about how he can never meet an honest-to-goodness virgin, attracting mountains of letters from self-avowed maidens professing their undying devotion.

Then, imagine that dilemma inspiring an Inaugural National Virgin Beauty Competition and leading to the invention of a hymen reconstruction surgery industry. This is the bizarre but daily life of Yu's two fictional brothers, Baldy Li and Song Gang, as their fortunes rise and fall across the decades.

Brothers was first released in two volumes in 2005 and 2006 and was well-received on the mainland with more than a million copies sold. A story of stepbrothers and the woman who comes between them, Brothers is a surreal but somehow believable tale set against the brutality and violence of the Cultural Revolution and the shock of the later economic boom. It examines family feuds and the conventional ties that bind, as well as free Chinese running amok in modern China.

'I have been observing the rapid economic change in China since 1995, when I started to conceive the story,' Yu says.

'But the concept was not mature enough to write about until 2003. Chinese people's living styles and values are not the same as in the 80s, when the political situation was the central [pillar] of the country.'

Almost six years ago, before Yu began writing the book, he was invited to the US to join the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa for two months.

There he enjoyed access to library materials on the Cultural Revolution that he had never read at home. The history of those 10 years, as well as his own childhood experiences of the time, became the foundations for Brothers.

But he stresses: 'It is nothing biographical. I just wanted to write about the 40 years of changes in China, which could be compared to 400 years of development in the west. I have always wanted to write stories that give people the strength to face brutal reality.'

Despite his good intentions and outstanding sales, Brothers has been attacked by critics as exaggerated, extreme and absurd and 'nothing more than [a work] to please western readers' tastes'.

Yu gazes at passers-by outside his Tsim Sha Tsui hotel window, pondering: 'Aren't the poisoned-milk crisis or the widespread counterfeit products more absurd than the novel? These incidences happen around us every day,' he says. 'When I wrote Brothers nobody could foresee the global financial crisis we are experiencing. The incidences in the novel were all inspired by the daily news I read. The book is not meant to be prophetic; all I am trying to portray is a social phenomenon that has not been written about or discussed.'

Yu welcomes criticism, considering it a result of unfamiliarity or uneasiness with a new style of writing. He is proud of the novel's simple narrative, which increases its approachability. 'I always use simple language in my writing. Everybody in the little town I portrayed is a narrator,' he says. 'The language they use is vivid and diversified. Through their individual stories, bit by bit, they are telling the story of an era.'

Brothers was one of the five short-listed titles for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, the leading regional award for a novel unpublished in English.

Yu attended the recent prize presentation ceremony but left without the winner's US$10,000 cheque. 'I wasn't disappointed,' he says, 'because Brothers had already won France's Prix Courrier International. A prize is a confirmation of my writing, but winning or losing is neither good nor bad for me,' he says.

'To be a novelist, all you need to do is keep writing. To write is to live. You learn about life only if you continue to experience it; so it is with writing. You figure out where your writing is leading you only if you continue to write.'