Brothers by Da Chen
There are seeds of several good ideas in memoirist Da Chen's first novel, certainly some beautiful imagery and memorable catastrophes. But Brothers struggles to integrate with its own message, stumbles over its narrative structure, and stretches credibility in its tale of two estranged brothers taking opposite sides in China's Cultural Revolution.
Shento was born as his mother was in the process of throwing herself off a cliff, despairing that her lover, General Long, would not acknowledge their illegitimate son. Caught by a branch as his mother crashed to the sea, Shento survived to be raised by a local medicine man. At the same time, General Long's legal wife brought a baby into the world in the opulence of Beijing. This child, Tan, grew up in luxury, but nevertheless falls victim to the shifting political sentiment in Communist China. Both brothers suffer calamity upon calamity, each time rising to be greater than before. But not all great men are righteous, as Tan experiences his greatest suffering at Shento's orders. Caught in the middle of it all is Sumi Wo, the woman that both men love, who serves as catalyst for Tan and Shento's shocking transformations.
Brothers is told largely from the first-person perspectives of Tan and Shento, with occasional interjections by Sumi. The alternation of Tan and Shento's chapters sets up a nice dialogue; the two brothers exhibit distinct voices as they mature along disparate paths. Sumi's chapters, though, pose a bit of a problem. They are the first sign of structural inconsistency, but one that might be overlooked in the interest of lending an important insight into the events surrounding Tan and Shento's conflict. Instead, Sumi's chapters add little to the narrative, especially once she has shifted from "letters to Shento" into her own present tense. The chapters seem to be included solely to emphasize what a good person she is, and to highlight the injustice of her fate. This is, though, very much in keeping with her characterization, as Sumi exists only to suffer so that Tan and Shento have something to tear their shirts over. From her initial rape (with its utterly implausible aftermath) to her imprisonment and beyond, Sumi's purpose is to be destroyed yet remain firmly on her pedestal. In addition to Sumi's chapters, though, there are also scattered episodes starring General Long and minor characters Tan meets along the way, and these do not even fall in with the first-person narration of the rest of the book. It appears that at some point Da Chen realized he needed an omniscient narrator to show certain events, but most of what is revealed in these chapters might easily have been folded in elsewhere.
Another, more endemic flaw crops up in the voices and motivations of the protagonists themselves. Their stories may be fantastic, but each does adhere to a certain logical progression. The problem arises in how the characters see and react to events around them. Tan has more than adequate reason to rage against the powers that be, yet much of his revolutionary spirit is phrased in economic terms or the abstract language of "freedom." As a result, there is a substantial disconnect between what Tan should be fighting for -- rooted in the very concrete ordeals of his life -- and the vague ideals of those who fight adversity from the comfortable position of not having to live through it. Shento's objectives are similarly blurred: he says he fights to punish his father and regain Sumi's affections, yet all of his efforts are directed against Tan.
The final indignation, however, occurs in the resolutions to Tan and Shento's fates. Near the close of the novel, Tan receives the aid of an apparent deus ex machina. It is a device too keenly placed, but there is some groundwork laid earlier in the book for its arrival. So this gets a pass. But then Shento receives the same boon. There may be some narrative purpose to the brothers' parallel destinies, but trotting out the same barely-conceivable plot twist twice within two chapters is simply too much to accept.
It is clear that Chen is both passionate and knowledgeable about his subject matter, as he displays an acute understanding of the politics and cultural influences of China's early Communist society. But the protagonists of Brothers do not appear intimately engaged in their own struggles; instead they are propelled through life by monumental events that fail to leave an impact and, in the end, find themselves at peace through no effort of their own.
Brothers by Da Chen
Shaye Areheart Books