It has been 10 years since Yu Hua, one of the most famous novelists in today's China, published his last fiction work.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Yu was a prominent figure in the avant-garde literary movement, which swept across the Chinese literary world at the time.
He was quite prolific. Between 1984 and 1995 he wrote a total of 12 books. Two of his most widely read novels, To Live (huo zhe) and The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (Xu Sanguan mai xie ji) were listed among last decade's 10 most influential books in China.
His books also have received international acclaim, winning many awards in Europe and the United States and being translated into a dozen foreign languages.
To Live was later adapted into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994.
But it seems that Yu has been experiencing a long period of writers' block after the former dentist at a rural clinic in east China's Zhejiang Province shot to fame.
For 10 years he has not released any fiction work. He explained that he has been "casting a sword" during that time.
That partly explains why Yu's latest penning, Brothers (xiong di), made such a hit when it was released in August. It became the talk of the town in many cities, a scene quite rare for fictions in China. It topped the country's literature best-seller charts immediately after hitting the market.
So far all the 250,000 copies of the first two printings have been sold out. The publisher, Shanghai Literature Press, has ordered a third printing of 100,000 copies.
Interestingly, Brothers was not the sword that the author had intended to cast at first.
"Five years ago I began working on an endless novel, that was the narration of a century. In August 2003 I went to the United States, running around here and there for seven months. When I returned to Beijing, I found I had lost the desire to continue that lengthy narration. Then I began writing Brothers," Yu recalled.
Tale of two eras
Like in many of his previous works, Yu tries to tell the personal history of the two protagonists in Brothers, a pair of stepbrothers, in chronicle order.
It is divided into two parts. The first part, which deals with the tribulations of the two brothers' childhood and adolescence in the midst of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), is what we have read now. The second part, set in the present day and following the fates of the two brothers separately, will be published later.
As Yu himself has put it, the novel is the narration of the meeting of two eras. The "cultural revolution" is an era of "mania, instinct-inhibition and miserable fate."
Today all the former ethics have been overthrown, people are fickle and indulge themselves in sensual pleasure diversified and yet a little degenerated.
He compares the "cultural revolution" years to the pre-Renaissance period in Europe and the contemporary era in both China and Europe.
He said: "It takes a Westerner 400 years to experience two eras so completely different, and it only takes a Chinese 40 years. Four hundred years of changes have been condensed into 40 years and that is a precious experience."
The writer said at first he planned to write only 100,000 characters, but the narration itself dominated his writing and would not stop until 400,000 characters rolled out.
Yu has a gift for telling stories, which he has shown in his previous works. His latest penning proves, again, he is a great storyteller.
Reading fiction is a challenging task for most people nowadays as they are attracted to a broad range of entertainments. But once they pick up Brothers, many cannot put it down.
The book begins in the restless early youth of Li Guang, nicknamed "Li Guangtou (Bald Li)," who gets caught while peeping at women in a public toilet.
That totally freaks out Li's mother, whose husband died by falling in a cesspit while peeping at women. She hopes that "like father, like son" will be proven wrong.
But Li shows a talent for business. He soon throws off the abashment and makes a fortune by describing the beautiful buns he has seen.
The book focuses on the special bond between Li and his stepbrother Song Gang after Li's mother marries Song's father, a prominent figure in their hometown.
The relationship grows even stronger as the father faces political troubles and is hounded to death and the mother dies from an illness in the ensuing years.
Yu has not shied away from violence in his narration. He does not become maudlin and somehow retains humor demonstrating a cold-bloodiness that probably originated from his earlier professional experience as a dentist.
This has been shown in his descriptions of the scenes of cruelty during the "cultural revolution."
For one moment we will even wonder whether these scenes could really have happened because they are so absurd. In the next moment we will be convinced because his narration retains the magical realist quality the strange mixture of absurdity and tragedy is another prominent characteristic of Yu's writing.
Yu also succeeds in creating a convincing figure out of Song Fanping, Li Guangtou's stepfather and Song Gang's birth father, an optimistic and lofty man who serves as an idealized cornerstone of the novel. His charming character exudes genuine love and warmth, and provides some real hope for humanity.
Considering all the above, it is safe to say that Brothers provides much pleasure to those reading it. Only a few pure literary writers in China have been popular at the pop culture level and Yu, for sure, is among them.
But that might also be where it fails. Some critics have criticized it for being like a tear jerking soap opera too melodramatic, too sentimental, and too full of tears and crying.
And Yu arranges the plots with a rhythm that becomes predictable as the novel goes on. There are parts that make us laugh. As we continue we soon feel foolish. There is the sense of foreboding when we come to realize that the good times are just a set up for a tragedy .
Even the content of the second part of the story is predictable, since Yu reveals the ultimate fate of the protagonists at the beginning of the first part. We can only hope that he comes up with a more creative and fresh way to tell the rest of the story.
Also, the language in Brothers is plainer than in his earlier works. The writer replaces the descriptions of an inner world he used before with straightforward storytelling. The result is less poetic, which might disappoint fans of his poetical novels such as Crowing out in the Drizzle (zai xi yu zhong hu han) and On the Road at 18 (shi ba sui chu men yuan xing).
(China Daily November 11, 2005)