Brothers by Da Chen

by Adam Z. Berenstain, SUNY Cortland, April 21, 2008

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In her book Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan recounts an incident from the very end of Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. On the last night of the trip, TV news reporter Walter Cronkite was startled from sleep when Chinese soldiers entered his hotel room unannounced and...presented him with a gift of candy. The Chinese officials in charge of keeping the visiting Americans happy noted that the reporters covering the event cleaned out bowls of sweets wherever they went, and thought an impromptu going-away present was in order.

To my mind this story sums up the gulf between China and America. China, a potent military force and now rising economic power, simply seems scary to many Americans. Yet for all the perceptions of China as a collective Communist mind bent on economic or military conquest -- it depends on which week you watch the news -- the truth is that China is more than appearances suggest. Author Da Chen brings this truth to life in his charming first novel, Brothers.

Brothers is the more-than-slightly fantastical tale of the rise of two sons of a prominent general in a fictionalized China of the 1980s and 90s. Shento is a bastard ignored by his father and left to rot in a miserable orphanage in the country. Tan is the favored son who lives a life of privilege in Beijing. Shento escapes his orphanage bent on revenge against the family that cast him aside, and joins the army. Tan excels at school and business and comes to love both economic and intellectual freedom while seeking his fortune in the increasingly capitalist climate of China after Mao. Throughout the first half of Brothers, Shento and Tan pursue their goals with steely resolve, each unaware of the other’s existence. Both men, through improbable turns of fate made palatable by Chen’s gift for storytelling, fall in love with the same woman: the sad, gifted young writer Sumi.

Tan and Shento are willing to go to whatever heights and depths are necessary to win and keep Sumi’s love. As the love triangle develops, it becomes clear that Chen has more on his mind than romance. Chen is writing about the two faces of modern China. Shento comes to embody the worst excesses of the credo “might makes right,” while Tan emerges as a starry-eyed capitalist in danger of choosing dollars over ideals. Neither brother is quite a cardboard cutout representing a particular view of his homeland. Rather, both are endearing characters with both good and bad qualities.

For an allegorical historical novel, Brothers proves to be a pretty entertaining read. Both Tan and Shento struggle mightily to make their dreams come true, and they meet many colorful characters along the way. Despite the serious subject matter, Brothers offers many humorous looks at daily life in China. Coincidences and contrivances put the main characters at the center of China’s recent decades of growth, but the novel’s fanciful constructions usually don’t intrude to the point of distraction.

That said, Brothers has its flaws. Chen’s prose gets a bit purple when describing his character’s churning emotions and Sumi, simply put, exists only to bring both brothers together and provide a source of dramatic tension. Tan and Shento are intriguing characters, but their actions often feel motivated by a need to arrive at a dramatic confrontation with one another, rather than by their organic inner lives.

Despite its flaws, Brothers is a romantic, rags-to-riches/rags-to-revenge page turner and an enjoyable look at a China that is neither friend nor foe, but its own conflicted self. Just as there is more than one China, there is more than one way to look at China. Brothers is one you might want to check out.

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