Three Brothers: Memories of My Family by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

The first book Yan Lianke wrote was burned when he joined the Chinese army, in 1978. His mother tore up his adolescent ode to the Cultural Revolution, then used it to kindle kitchen fires. Yan worked in the army’s propaganda department for years, yet his own novels ran into trouble with censors. Serve The People!, a racy comedy on the cult of Mao during the revolution, was banned. For Summer Sunset, he was ordered to write “self-criticisms” for six months.

With many of his books having been translated into English in the past decade, Yan has become a rallying figure in the literary world. Chinese publishers remain barred, however, from printing new copies of his backlist. Each year, before the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, the Chinese government sends a minder to his home in Beijing: “In case I’m bombarded by international press,” Yan says, “and say something untoward.”

“They Could Be Buried There”

Three Brothers is Yan’s most popular book in China, and it isn’t difficult to see why. He wrote this earnest memoir about his father and two uncles, he confesses, partly out of guilt, having come to realize after a family death that “the function of all the toil and hardship, misfortune and kindness my father’s generation experienced had been to permit them to continue living.”

Yan grew up in a village in central China; he doesn’t know the year he was born. His father was a farmer, and his family owned a small strip of land in the mountains, which they had to give up when devastating famines swept the country. Yan recounts the story of his father spending three years making the family plot cultivable—weeding out stones and rocks, lugging them down the mountain during the winter—only to have it seized one morning after an order from the regime. His father took the news morbidly, telling the family that the site would make for an excellent graveyard: “When someone dies, they could be buried there,” he said.

The harshness of life described in Three Brothers is frequently unbearable. Yan recalls his asthma-prone father’s happiness in the military hospital he got him admitted to, “Those two weeks were the most reassuring period of my life.” The defining trauma of his father’s generation was the Great Leap Forward: an attempt by Mao to build a collective utopia, it tipped over into mass killings and famines. Exasperated by the endless slog of providing for his eight children, Yan’s eldest uncle would come home and threaten his family, “If I kill all of you, I’ll finally be able to relax…” Another uncle spent his life as a laborer in the city, but was forced to return to his ancestral village after retirement. He belonged nowhere, neither in the city nor the countryside.

The harshness of life described in Three Brothers is frequently unbearable.

Growing up, Yan was enamored by life in the city, for in the village lay “only endless hunger and loneliness.” At 14, because of an uncle, he landed a job at a cement factory in the city. The factory, Yan writes, was “simultaneously pursuing revolution and promoting production.” He worked double shifts there, 16 hours a day. His fingers would swell up after a day spent loading carts and hauling stones, so that he couldn’t grip even a pencil at night. He returned to his village to sit for a university entrance exam, and failed to get in. It is in the countryside, while working in his cousin’s construction crew in the mornings, that Yan became a writer. After he joined the army, the chance discovery of a Chinese edition of Gone With The Wind—more than the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, or Stendhal—“truly transported me to another world.”

Fans of Yan’s fiction will be disappointed by the guileless tone of Three Brothers. Yan seems content to just detail his family’s comeuppance—and their struggles—in chapter after chapter. “It is better to let half the people die,” Mao famously said, “so that others can eat their fill.” The stories Yan tells in this memoir prove that the Communist party took the remark seriously.

One yearns for the transgressions of the two lovers in Serve The People!, who are turned on by smashing statues of Mao; or the absurdity, in Lenin’s Kisses, of the maimed villagers trying to buy the Soviet hero’s embalmed corpse. Remembering the occasions his father hit him as a child, Yan suggests that perhaps his father should have beat him up even more. “I feel that if only Father could still curse and beat me today the way he used to, I would feel happy and secure.” For once, Yan appears to be saying something untoward in an otherwise solemn book.

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a writer living in New Delhi