Brothers by Da Chen

Synopsis, courtesy of

Brothers by Da ChenAt the height of China’s Cultural Revolution a powerful general fathered two sons. Tan was born to the general’s wife and into a life of comfort and luxury. His half brother, Shento, was born to the general’s mistress, who threw herself off a cliff in the mountains of Balan only moments after delivering her child. Growing up, each remained ignorant of the other’s existence. In Beijing, Tan enjoyed the best schools, the finest clothes, and the prettiest girls. Shento was raised on the mountainside by an old healer and his wife until their deaths landed him in an orphanage, where he was always hungry, alone, and frightened. Though on divergent roads, each brother is driven by a passionate desire—one to glorify his father, the other to seek revenge against him.

Separated by distance and opportunity, Tan and Shento follow the paths that lie before them, while unknowingly falling in love with the same woman and moving toward the explosive moment when their fates finally merge.

Brothers, by bestselling memoirist Da Chen, is a sprawling, dynamic family saga, complete with assassinations, love affairs, narrowly missed opportunities, and the ineluctable fulfillment of destiny.

Brothers tells the old familiar story of rivalry and bitterness between brothers (or half-brothers, as it were). Tan and Shento are the sons of the General Ding Long, a member of the illustrious Long clan, which has political ties to Chairman Mao. Tan, being the legitimate son, is privy to a world of private schools, chauffeurs, and society parties; Shento, as the bAstard son, lives in the remote area of Balan with the old couple who adopted him. After a myriad of implausible events, Shento lands in an orphanage and Tan’s family goes into exile in the remote province the Longs came from.

Sumi Wo is the long-suffering, (stereotypically) saintly female protagonist who charms the pants off of both Shento and Tan. (What a coincidence, eh?) Shento gets dibs as he met Sumi first; they are both orphans with grand dreams of life beyond the orphanage. Tan meets sumi in his family’s ancestral village and is (of course) immediately enthralled by her beauty and intelligence.

Brothers is told from the perspective of Tan and Shento in alternating chapters, with Sumi and a few minor characters cluttering up the narrative with their own (unnecessary) few chapters. The structure of the novel is damaged by Da Chen’s indecision as to whether to use an omniscient narrator or to write from his characters’ perspectives; by using both, the book comes off as sophomoric and poorly constructed.

The novel is filled with unnatural, forced dialogue, as in p. 289, when Sumi tries to articulate her pain at Shento’s absence.

…Many times…I wished…[t]hat I had taken those bullets in my head, and that you were the survivor, walking with our child in the mountains, climbing over the peaks…to see the sunshine of tomorrow. I would have been happy and content being a silent ghost…hoping that you would find Tai Ping a mother to care for him and a virtuous wife to love you as I would have…I would have been jealous but not angry, for I would be dead, living in the dark side of life, and you all belonged to the light…

It does not read well, does it? The dialogue sounds like magical-realism-by-the-numbers. Far more offensive than the clunky language, though, is Da Chen’s seeming worship of the power of the…er…penis. Apparently, Da Chen thinks it is believable for a woman (in this case, Sumi) to ask her lover (in this case, Shento), after she is raped to “…Make me clean, please. If you will have me, I swear to the mother moon that I be wedded to you in the grace of her embrace.” That line had me howling with incredulous laughter and cringing uncomfortably. The inappropriately timed sex also occurs to Tan (Shento and Tan are brothers, after all, with fates inexplicably entwined), who finally gets to bed his sexy English teacher, Miss Yu, after he rescues her from detainment due to her subversive activities (in this case, notions of democracy).

However, such implausible events, in the hands of a gifted writer, can seem possible. It requires a certain wit and finesse, though, that I didn’t encounter in Da Chen’s “Brothers.” I think Da Chen himself, through Tan’s description of Sumi’s memoirs, summed up his writing style best:

…All other books, in the grand tradition of Chinese literature, were flowery and pompous, a showcase of a writer’s breadth of knowledge, his command of language, and maneuvers of fancy styles.

Magical realism requires an author who can make the reader suspend belief, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote about incest and pretty girls eating mud in One Hundred Years of Solitude, without it seeming forced or unnatural. Da Chen’s heavy-handed, self-conscious prose does not quality him as one of those authors.


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