If Mark Twain were alive and well in the twenty-first century, Huckleberry Finn would be an American version of Brothers. These books have everything in common except for the bawdy, ribald satire that fills this novel by Yu Hua. Without the cultural restraints that hampered Mark Twain, certainly Huckleberry would have happily joined Baldy Li in his fourteen-year-old adventure in voyeurism, peeking at female buttocks in the public toilet.
If not for his mother's second marriage, Baldy, like Huckleberry, would have been an individualistic rascal "lighting off for the territory" alone but fate provided him with a brother. The son of Baldy's stepfather, Song Gang shares none of his new brother's gene pool but swiftly becomes his comrade in survival--and later his romantic rival.
Brothers was published in China as a work in two volumes; in the West it was presented in a single volume divided into two parts, which does not work to the novel's advantage. This is clearly two separate books with two jarringly different moods. When jammed together In one volume, what its translators describe as "subversive humor" rubs jaggedly against what they term "haunting sentimentality." It's as though the tragic heroism found in The Grapes of Wrath was followed by the unsparing, savage satirical voice of Evelyn Waugh.
Hua's first book is haunting but far from sentimental. When Baldy's heroic stepfather is battered to death on the street during the Cultural Revolution and his son and stepson find his corpse, there is no sentimentality in the rather callous way they examine a body so disfigured that they are unable to recognize the man they both deeply love. Even the most tender scene between the children and their father, a trip to the ocean on a moonlit night, avoids bathos by being placed between the destruction of the family's home and the imprisonment that leaves the boys to become a solid unit, depending only on each other for their survival. The violence of this turbulent period in Chinese history is accompanied by the examples of heroes--both parents of Song Gang and Baldy Li have strength and courage in epic quantities.
And then history takes a hard twist and so does this novel. With the onset of free enterprise and untrammeled wealth, heroism dissolves and so does the bond between the two brothers. Song Gang, besotted by love, becomes a uxurious fool while Baldy Li, still obsessed by his adolescent glimpse of the perfect bottom that belongs to his brother's wife, hurls himself into making money. There are no heroes in this landscape shaped by energy and greed--only successful businessmen.
And business destroys goodness in grotesque and horrible ways, stripping away the dignity that the brutality of the Cultural Revolution was unable to extinguish. Heroism is swallowed up by instant gratification and virtue is destroyed by the search for glory that only money can provide. Death in the first portion of this book was reason for deep sadness; in the second part, nobody--not even the reader--truly cares.
And as Brothers ends with Baldy Li planning to carry Song Gang's ashes on a purchased space-shuttle ride, a scheme that he hatches while "perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat," the thought arises, how would Huckleberry Finn conclude in 21st century America--on Wall Street? In a homeless shelter? Selling masculine extensions over the Internet? Or would Huck be on his way, perhaps with Baldy Li, to colonize the moon?