Just finished and very much enjoyed Yu Hua’s Brothers, China’s all-time best-selling novel. If you’re going to read one long translated work of fiction in the social-magical-realism mode this year, make Hua’s book the one. Especially if you like lots of bathroom jokes swirled into your multigenerational sagas of love and capital. The translation, by Eileen Chow and Carlos Rojas, feels very natural without reading like colloquial English; I can’t speak to its faithfulness, of course.
The book is in some ways a standard melodrama; people get rich, people get poor, people get politically oppressed and beaten, two people want to marry the same person, people disappear on long journeys only to reappear at just the right time, people get artificial breasts and hymens surgically attached (OK, that last part is somewhat less standard, but by the end of the 600+ pages of Brothers it’s started to seem standard.) I think my social prejudices would work against my buying an American novel that functioned like Brothers. Or America’s all-time best-selling novel, whatever it is. But when a book is in translation all snobbery falls away. Maybe because it is “improving” to read foreign books. (Those scare quotes are meant to distract you from the fact that I actually kind of believe this to be the case.)
One sentence from a direction I decided not to pursue in this post: “The brothers in Brothers are the driven and insatiable Baldy Li and his meeker, gentler brother Song Gang; the inexorable rise to wealth, prominence, and sexual irresistibility of the former, and the corresponding decline into government dependence, ill-health, and gynecomastia of the latter, is the kind of story Ayn Rand would have told if a) she were funny, and b) she thought that the successful brother was horrible and doomed, but recognized that the alternative to this kind of success was even worse.”