Yan Lianke’s Three Brothers is a tender, frank and philosophical memoir of growing up in a rural family cursed by “constant poverty” but blessed with “boundless grace”. Yan, a novelist whose biting political satires (Serve the People!, for example) have often put him at odds with the Chinese censors, and whose The Four Books made the Booker International shortlist, was born in a village in central Henan in 1958, at the start of the famine years. When he was growing up in the Cultural Revolution, urban youth arrived in his village for “re-education” by the peasantry. There are many literary accounts of that time, including Dai Sijie’s charming Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, but few from the perspective of the peasants themselves. Yan recalls the visitors’ clean clothing, minimal contribution to farm work, oblivious consumption of their host families’ precious food stores, and their mockery. But Yan didn’t hate these “elite deities” for their privilege: “I just felt a sense of hopeless resentment over the fact that I had been born in the countryside.”
Reading introduced him to another world; writing helped him find his way there. His family didn’t understand why he pursued such a controversial path: “There is no need for you to hang yourself from this tree of writing,” one relative counselled. He was 60 when his mother finally told him to write whatever he wanted to, so long as he continued to visit. With Three Brothers, Yan takes us home with him. The three brothers of the title are his father and two uncles, each of whom, in his way, helped to make Yan the person and the writer he is. The men, not highly literate, individual in quirks of personality and temper, are all hardworking to a degree that makes your bones ache just to read about it. And they do it all for family. These are rich and intimate portraits, full of humour and pathos, skilfully translated by Carlos Rojas.
There’s a beautiful passage in which one uncle, who works in a cement factory in a town, arrives wearing a blue-striped polyester shirt with six silver buttons that “gleamed as though made of glittering crystal or moonlight”. The teenage Yan is mesmerised by the vision it affords of life outside the village. His uncle gives him the shirt and, later, a job at the factory. Yan eventually learns that, like his uncle, he would never truly belong anywhere ever again.
Text, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "Yan Lianke, Three Brothers ".
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