Originally published on Rue89- 04/17/2008 –
“Brothers,” the book by the famous Chinese writer Yu Hua, who enjoyed considerable success in China, has been translated in France. On this occasion, Yu Hua is in Paris; Rue89 could ask him some questions with the help of Isabelle Rabut, translator of the novel and professor at the “INALCO”.
The novel was published in two volumes in 2005 and 2006 and has sold more than one million copies. The first part concerns the Cultural Revolution and the second the current period. As said by Yu Hua, in forty years, we move from very rough living conditions to the “victories” of consumer society; in Europe, such a change has taken centuries to occur.
The book is about the lives of two half-brothers: Song Gang, introverted, moral, loving and discrete and Li Guangtou with energy and unbridled instincts, inventive; a bandit, with a wide appetite for money and women.
Unlike in Chinese historical novels, the family is not large but the mother of Li Guangtou, the father of Song Gang (the only “positive” hero in the book), the beautiful Lin Hong (whose marriage to Song Gang creates a rupture between the brothers) should not overshadow the secondary characters (villagers) that are also facinated by the gold rush.
This is not a political novel. The Cultural Revolution is in the background, the struggles between factions and its incredible cruelty are there, but the historical actors are not present, the developments are not mentioned. To understand what happened, better to read Simon Leys or texts on “The massacres of the Cultural Revolution” by Song Yongy (Buchet Chastel, 2008).
The links between business and politics are hardly mentioned (p. 382) and if you want to learn about privatization and the links with the bureaucracy, the book by Marie-Claire Bergere on Chinese capitalism is a better source.
The novel details the failures of public enterprises, the layoffs and the necessity to establish your own business to survive, even if as Song Gang you have no talent to sell products more or less legal. Finally the book shows the very rapid development in a small town of real estate speculation which makes Li Guangtou rich.
Sex is everywhere: Li Guangtou as a peeping Tom in public toilets, torrid affair with Lin Hong, sale of “stimulating” products “, beauty contests of true / false “virgins”, but the book probably was not censored because it is “politically correct”.
The novel has been criticized in China for its crude and sometimes a bit loose style but the humor, the picaresque character of some adventures are very well rendered by the translators Isabelle Rabut and Angel Pino. The characters really do exist, they have some depth, we get involved with them and we forgive certain “easy” pages to the author.
We must remember the above description of the extraordinary vitality of China and its millions of entrepreneurs; the excesses and abuses are in line with this fantastic appetite for life.
How a dentist becomes a writer:
Born in 1960 in Hangzhou in southern China, Yu Hua spent his youth in a small nearby town (Haiyan) and was practically raised in a hospital by parents who were doctors. He was at school during the Cultural Revolution, without a lot of school and without a lot of books seen the fires organized by the Red Guards. He also tells us that the political posters (the “dazibao”) showed him the ability to lie and the will to hurt of many neighbors in these troubled times where public executions are star shows.
He became a dentist for five years: the 10,000 mouths that he had to open, demonstrate that it is one of the worst sceneries in the world! He began writing to be published and obtain a transfer to Haiyan Cultural Center, where he had little to do and could concentrate on writing. He reads a lot of contemporary history and especially translations of foreign literature: “If you’re not a good reader, you will not be a good writer.”
Emerging from the Cultural Revolution, the literature was virtually nonexistent, and the writers of this generation (Su Tong, Yu Hua, Ge Fei) are strongly influenced by Kafka, Borges and Robbe-Grillet. To mark their difference from the “Maoist literature”, they focus on the technique, how the story goes. The characters are abstract, impersonal. In one of the short stories by Yu Hua, translated by Andrew F. Jones (University of Hawaii Press, 1996), they have no names but numbers!
From 1987 to 1991, he tried several literary forms, under the influence of traditional techniques and topics: the beauty and the scholar in the collection of four short stories “A classic love” (Actes Sud, 2000), where the extreme cruelty of some scenes brings us close to classic tales. Police investigations of “A vanished world” (Philippe Picquier, 1994) is another literary development. Finally “1986” (Actes Sud) brings us back again into the Cultural Revolution but the modernist techniques manages to get the reader a bit tired.
He does not believe in the doctrine of inevitable historical progress and as Lu Xun, the father of modern literature, he has a great eye for detail pictures of a very cruel and unjust society.
“Cries in the Drizzle” (Actes Sud, 2003) is a novel of transition with the neo-realist works that follow. The book is impressive: the story of a childhood, a youth between the family and the adoptive parents, between the village and a small town. The writer in a very controlled cyclical construction, describes all the conflicts with brothers and father or between parents because of his father’s escapades … The family is hateful but irreplaceable and friends cannot replace it; the political situation is only a backdrop.
Neo-realism and success:
The avant-garde writers do not sell much. Society changes, public expectations also. Characters of flesh and blood have to be created and the readers attached to them. The historical dimension, the epic and a touch of sentimentality are necessary ingredients; moreover the language used must be simple in order to be understood by all.
” To Live,” published in 1992 (reprinted by Actes Sud, in April 2008) was a great success (500,000 copies sold in China) and inspires the film director Zhang Yimou, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1994. During several decades of turbulent times, we follow the first-person narrative of the hero Fugui, his passion for gambling, his vindictiveness, his pride is often misplaced, so as his desire not to lose face. But the hero becomes human and is saved by his love for his family …
“Chronicle of a blood merchant ” (Actes Sud 1997), also shows us a hero from low categories, without the right to speak, drifting but with a great sense of his family responsibilities. Again, a political novel that was not a great success in China. The sale of blood, a traditional activity in some poor villages, is explained and the corruption that accompanies it. The neglected health risks will explode a few years later with the AIDS epidemic in Henan Province described by Yan Lianke’s novel “The Dream of Ding Village” (Philippe Picquier, 2007).
Yu Hua delivers short chapters, dialogues; it is a tragic tale and not an epic like “Living,” an allegory on the poor and the draining of their vital resources by the system.
Some questions to Yu Hua:
Q- Before writing “Brothers, you started a novel about the history of the last hundred years, will you continue?
Yes, I have already written two hundred pages and I intend to finish this book. Before “Brothers” I have not written a novel for quite some years but I wrote essays and literary criticism.
Q- The Cultural Revolution plays a central role in the first part, however you do not analyse in any way what happened while for the youngest it is already ancient history.
You know there are many possible explanations. For some it was a purge in the government even if corruption at the time was very different from what we see now, but in fact it was a way for Mao to protect his own power.
Q- You ignore the “links” between entrepreneurs and authorities.
It is complex, and in the beginning, entrepreneurs needed the support of the authorities. But at certain periods, government executives were looking for investments, their promotion could depend on the results of the economy of their district.
Q- What do you think of the links between literature and internet?
Before the second part of “Brothers” was released, I agreed to put on my blog the first three chapters. A great success, although of course the readers would have liked more … Literature on the internet is growing in China, I think it’s a good thing. This creates an interest for literature and is an additional channel of publication, not complicated and this is important for young writers.
Q- You did not obtain the seventh Mao Dun prize, which was won by Wang Anyi …
You know, I could publish my book without difficulty and this is already very good! Do you think this book could have won the prize?
Q- The young and successful novelist Han Han said that the Chinese Writers’ Union is unnecessary and that only bad writers are drawing something.
Disagree, I am a member and they have a useful role and I was happy to find them in 1995 when I needed a visa for France or when I wanted to go to Taiwan. Sure things are much easier now and Han Han has never had such problems …
Q- The German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin said that modern Chinese literature was ” shit” …
He has the right to give his opinion even without much of a subtle approach … What is interesting are the reactions rather hysterical of Chinese media; the emotion was so great in China because this country does not trust itself. For literature, China still has the complex of being a little provincial.
Q- Do you know the Chinese authors living outside of China?
I know few of them, I met with Gao Xingjian, twice; I have not read his novels which are not published in China but I know some of his plays.
Taiwan is a special case, its writers are not recognized as they deserve. In the world one is interested only in the literature of the continent and this is a mistake. There are very good writers like Chu Tien-wen,who wrote several scenarios for the great filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chang Ta-ch’un for example.
[Isabelle Rabut who,with Angel Pino, has done much to raise awareness in France for theTaiwan literature, underlines that it is difficult to interest the public despite the high quality of these authors.]
Q- Do you feeel nostalgia for your “modernist” period ?
Yes of course. At the time Su Tong, Can Xue, Ge Fei and myself, we did not know each other, we lived in different provinces. But it was the end of the Cultural Revolution, China was rediscovering literature and as young writers, we took things very seriously.
At that time no economic constraints, while now we must continually ask ourselves whether this book will sell or not.
Q- I think for you music is important …
Indeed, I listen to Western classical music, especially Bach and the German composers but also Olivier Messiaen and Eric Satie ….
A man capable of listening to Satie in the whirlwinds of life in Beijing … a dream.
► Brothers by Yu Hua – translated by Angel Pino and Isabelle Rabut – Actes Sud 2008 – 700 p. – 28 €.