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Reading Room: Much admired, much hated Chinese novelist at The Book Zoo on Friday

on March 3, 2009

The worldwide reception of controversial Chinese novelist Yu Hua‘s fourth novel, Brothers, reminds me of the Slumdog Millionaire paradox. The country it portrays protests with indignation while the rest of the world showers it with accolades. Like protesters who took to the streets of Mumbai before the Academy Awards, complaining that Slumdog magnifies and romanticizes the worst parts of India and ignores its newer successes, some Chinese critics are enraged at the brutality and gruesomeness of Yu’s sprawling depiction of the last 50 years in China.

Yu became an international sensation when the film version of his earlier novel, To Live, by director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers) was banned by Chinese censors. His stories are sprawling, epic, and full of desperate characters in unpleasant situations: murderous gamblers, swindler industrialists, broke patriarchs, starving mothers.

Brothers, which sold one million copies in China and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, follows two entrepreneurial stepbrothers from the Cultural Revolution to China’s “Consumer Revolution.” Over decades their get-rich schemes (a beauty pageant for virgins, breast-enhancement gels) seem to echo the splintering of China’s social norms as its markets crack open. Flashbacks to their childhood under the Cultural Revolution are dark with nauseous terror, as the stepbrothers witness the Red Guards torture one of their fathers to death.

As this excellent profile of Yu in the New York Times Magazine from January explains, Chinese critics accuse Yu of “selling out to the very forces of commercialism and vulgarity anatomized in his novel,” and “promoting a negative image of China and Chinese writers to the West.” Yu counters that the negative reviews come from younger, well-off Chinese critics, who “are not even aware of the hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty” there.

On Friday, March 6, Yu will speak at The Book Zoo at 6395 Telegraph Avenue; quite a catch for a small, independent shop. The event starts at 7pm and is free. Call 510.654.2665 for more information.

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