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Past and punishments

Books Yu Hua's bawdy new novel follows two stepbrothers through China's Cultural Revolution and the violent shift to consumer capitalism that followed

A customer rests on a seat fashioned after a western-style toilet at a shopping mall in Nanjing.
A customer rests on a seat fashioned after a western-style toilet at a shopping mall in Nanjing. "In recent years, China's public toilets have increasingly become the frontier zones of a new nation."

Sukhdev Sandhu reads Yu Hua's bawdy new novel, which follows two stepbrothers through China's Cultural Revolution and the violent shift to consumer capitalism that followed Brothers Yu Hua Translated from the Chinese by Cheng-Yin Chow and Carlos Rojas Pantheon Dh102 Anyone who has spent time in China in the last few years will have noticed how much its public toilets have changed. Not so long ago, they were the stuff of urban nightmares: dimly-lit, mud-walled sheds housing single shared pits. To use them, men and women often had to stand in line for what must have seemed like an eternity. The smells they produced were terrible. Untreated waste discharged into nearby rivers was a major cause of intestinal diseases.

It's still not uncommon for public bathrooms to have rotted doors and slippery floors, or for their doorless stalls to be populated by old men smoking cigarettes as they squat down, but toilets have increasingly become a frontier zone in the construction of a new nation. The run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games saw thousands of new toilets built as part of the huge restructuring of urban space in Beijing. Their walls sported posters: "No spitting. No smoking. No coarse language. No missing the hole."

Yu Hua's Brothers begins with the tycoon Baldy Li sitting on his gold-plated toilet, hatching a plan to board a Russian Federation space shuttle that is offering rides to tourists. From there, Yu quickly flashes back several decades to show us young Baldy Li prowling around the old-style public bathroom of Liu Town, a generic nowheresville full of gossips and decrepit houses. A few years earlier, his father drowned after falling into a cesspool while trying to steal a look at the backsides of young women using the facility. When we meet Baldy, he is bending down amid the stench and maggots on a similar mission.

This striking beginning does more than introduce Yu's bawdy humour, or vividly frame the period of social and political upheavals he goes on to narrate for almost 650 pages (the English-language translation combines two volumes that were published separately in China). It also introduces the fetching way in which Brothers seeks to understand history: as a series of encounters, revelations and disappointments linked very intimately to people's bodies, with results both painful and hilarious.

Early on in the first section, Baldy Li's widowed mother, Li Lan, gets married again, this time to Song Fanping, the man who caused Baldy Li's father to die by disturbing him in the bathroom. Song Fanping is strong and handsome, plays basketball, and is deeply in love with Li Lan. He also has his own son, Song Gang, "a model youth" who "was always carrying a book or magazine under his arm, he was always polite and refined, and if he noticed a young woman looking at him, he would invariably blush." The makeshift family gets along well enough, and Li Lan quickly recovers from her deep shame over the circumstances of her first husband's death. Baldy Li, however, remains the butt of town jokes, in large part because he is known to share his late father's voyeuristic passions.

In 1966, Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution hits the community; images of Mao become ubiquitous and locals start punctuating every other sentence with quotes from his Little Red Book. Formerly respected officials and schoolteachers are denounced as bourgeois lackeys and paraded through the town's streets with dunce caps on their heads or wooden placards around their necks; merchants rebrand themselves as Party zealots who tailor clothes or sell popsicles "only for class brothers and sisters and not for the revolution's enemies!" All traces of tradition or personal possessions, from chopsticks to old family photographs, are destroyed in the name of modernisation and collectivisation.

This is a well-worn story, but its tellings (literary and otherwise) often overlook the regularity and intensity of the violence meted out by the Chinese government to its citizens - not just the hunger caused by the failures of collective farming, but direct physical assaults. In the first section of Brothers, scarcely a page goes by without someone getting dragged, kicked, slapped, his teeth knocked out, his bones broken. The Red Guards are often the culprits, but they implicitly encourage citizens to follow their example in the service of the state cause.

Song Fanping, though by no means rich, was born into the landowning class. When his neighbours become convinced that he's hiding land deeds, they trash his house to look for them. When they don't find any, they lay into him. In order to shield his son and stepson from the shame heaped upon him by the townspeople, he tells them that the world "landlord" means "Chairman Mao of the land". When they repeat this in public, their father ends up battered into an even bloodier pulp, then sent to a jail (euphemistically called a "warehouse"). By the scene where he tries to escape from prison, the violence has become almost horrifying comic, a Sino-folksy, real-life version of Three Stooges-style slapstick:

"Six wooden bats crazily smashed down on him, until one after another they shattered. They were then followed by the red-armbanders' twelve feet, which stomped and kicked him for more than ten minutes, until finally he lay motionless. Only then did the six men, all out of breath from their exertion, pause to rub their arms and legs and wipe the sweat from their faces. They walked over to the bench under the ceiling fan, completely wiped out. Cocking their heads, they looked at Song Fanping slumped over the bye wall and cursed, 'F***.'"

The attack kills him (workers then smash his kneecaps to fit him into a small, cheap coffin); Song Gang and Baldy Li vow to stick together and look after each other. Their relationship begins to crumble, however, when the town beauty Lin Hong (on whom Baldy Li had been specifically spying in the novel's opening scene) falls in love with Song Gang. Baldy, already upset that the woman on whom he dotes from afar has called him an "ugly toad", appropriates the language of Mao to issue his stepbrother an ultimatum: "If you like her, we can no longer be brothers but instead will become enemies, and more specifically class enemies." The second part of the novel documents the protracted and agonising dissolution of their relationship.

Baldy Li partially sublimates his thwarted passion into his new job as director of the town's Good Works Factory. It's hardly a major achievement: the plant is a classic example of iron-rice-bowl socialism, a hunk of loss-making Maoist welfarism that employs "two cripples, three idiots, four blind men, and five deaf men". But Baldy Li, already a hustler at the age of 20, takes them to meet industrialists in Shanghai where he plays off people's sympathy to procure all manner of contracts.

It's the late 1970s. A new era is opening up, and Baldy Li's entrepreneurial flair meshes well with Deng Xiaoping's reforms encouraging private enterprise. He buys up the building where his stepfather was imprisoned, encourages locals to invest start-up money in a clothing company, loses all their money, begins again as a scrap merchant, trades internationally, successfully diversifies into real estate, and eventually becomes almost as omnipresent in Liu Town - now awash in consumer goods and private telephones - as Mao once was. "If you ate at the extravagant restaurant in Liu Town, it would be owned by Baldy Li; if you bathed at the ritziest bathhouse, it would be owned by Baldy Li; and if you went shopping at the largest shopping centre, it would also be owned by Baldy Li."

In this section, the violence is increasingly self-initiated, a perverse corollary to the rapid shift from state socialism to rampant capitalism: just as Deng instigated free-market reforms while claiming to adhere to Maoist principles, Yu's characters use their new freedoms to drastically re-sculpt their bodies and lives in the name of becoming more fully the people they already were. Baldy Li, seeking to prove his still-unflagging love for Lin Hong, has a vasectomy, which he argues is also a political act: "I have come to heed the call of China's birth control policy." Of course, this also allows him to sleep with thousands of women without fear of paternity suits; his libidinal excesses, which he describes the same transactional terms as his business schemes, reveal an emptiness that he never slakes.

Meanwhile, Song Gang, eager in spite of his increasingly poor health to provide for his wife, becomes an itinerant cosmetics salesman and undergoes breast-augmentation surgery to better showcase the (bogus) miracle properties of the breast cream he peddles to figure-conscious females. Most bizarrely, thousands of young women descend on Liu Town from all over the nation to take part in Baldy Li's Inaugural National Virgin Beauty Competition. Many of the contestants have recently become eligible by investing in hymen-reconstruction procedures (a surprisingly popular service offered by modern-day Chinese hospitals); those who make the shortlist sleep with the judges to increase their chances of winning. Even Lin Hong, who started out as a paragon of virtuous modesty, covering her body even during sweltering summers, ends up as the fashionably-dressed proprietress of a beauty salon that serves as a front for the upmarket bordello she runs.

Close attention to the visceral ways in which history is lived and felt is nothing new for Yu, who has always been interested in examining the impact that various visions of the Chinese "body politic" had on real Chinese bodies. One of the most memorable scenes in To Live, his 1992 novel later made into a film by Zhang Yimou, describes a pregnant woman during the Cultural Revolution who bleeds to death while giving birth because her rich doctor is semi-conscious from overeating. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995), set in the same period, tells the story of a silk-mill worker forced by poverty to donate more plasma than he can spare to the local blood bank.

This approach surely has some connection to Yu's upbringing. He was born in Haiyan, a small city not far from Shanghai, in 1960 (making him not much older than Baldy Li). Both of his parents were doctors, and they lived opposite a public toilet into which nurses dropped tumours. During the heat of the summer, Yu would slip into the local mortuary to take small naps. His first proper job, which he held for five years, was as a dentist staring into the diseased mouths of small-town men and women.

Brothers ends in 2001, the year China, amid much international punditry about its new status as a dragon economy, joined the World Trade Organisation (coincidentally, there is another WTO: the World Toilet Organization, a group that instigates global reforms in bathroom and waste disposal practices). As the novel closes, Baldy is relieving himself on his gold-plated toilet, entranced by footage of Russians in space on his plasma television. When he turns away from the screen and sees his own strained expression in the mirror, he feels "as though he had just seen a fresh flower followed by a pile of cow dung". It's a funny, vulgar and eerily ambiguous parting image of an man who has, in a relatively short time, evolved from a small-town pariah into a magnate single-handedly responsible for his county's contribution to China's GDP, from a sexually desperate teenager humping electricity poles to a Lothario of gargantuan proportions. Where next for him? And where next for the nation whose accelerated transformations he embodies, often more like a high-energy vector than a fully-rounded character?

Yu, like even the best satirists, doesn't have answers. But Brothers represents a way of thinking about the questions that may, in years to come, turn out to represent an aesthetic turning point. He invites his China's young writers to look back on their abject past - and, between the tears, laugh a little, even at the grotesqueries. Not all Chinese writers (or people) are refined, spiritual, solemn. A bawdy scavenger art full of sardonic, sly voices has the potential to transmute the excrement of their country's recent history into literary gold.

Sukhdev Sandhu, a professor of English Literature at New York University, is the author of Night Haunts, a multimedia book about nocturnal London.