In this heartfelt memoir, Yan Lianke brings the reader into his boyhood home in Song County, Henan Province, painting a richly detailed portrait of rural China during the Cultural Revolution
It is a hard but loving childhood. Yan’s family carve out a modest existence, though food is often so scarce they have to find edible bark and clay for sustenance. Working sixteen-hour shifts in a quarry, Yan’s hands become as crooked as twigs, but the satisfaction of hard physical labour and earning money to support his family proves intoxicating. Reading novels is an escape for Yan, and he yearns to become a writer after hearing about a woman who was allowed to remain in the city of Harbin after publishing her first novel.
Caught between his obligations as a son and a brother, and his longing for a new life, Yan eventually joins the army. He returns years later to find his father’s health rapidly deteriorating in the face of his desperate efforts to build a traditional tile-roofed house for each of his sons.
Chronicling the extraordinary lives of his father and two uncles, as well as his own, Three Brothers is a celebration of the power of one family to hold together in the most punishing of circumstances. Sharply alive to the cyclical nature of history, and the power of familial guilt, it also shows how the pen can be a route to freedom.
In this loving, episodic memoir, Chinese novelist Lianke (The Explosion Chronicles) recalls his family's experiences specifically that of his father's two brothers during the 1960s and '70s Cultural Revolution. After spending his teen years as a student in the Henan province, Lianke helped to support his family by joining his uncle, Siyue, working 16-hour days at a cement factory in the city of Xinxiang in 1975. He then joined the army at 20 to further help his family, during which time his father died. "It was because I wanted to join the army that he fell ill in the first place," he writes, feeling guilt over leaving his family. He then pays homage to his father's younger brother, Dayue, a poor but generous man who wove socks for free for his fellow villagers and gave Lianke treats he could barely afford. ("I still vividly recall the sweetness of those candies in a lifetime of endless bitterness," Lianke writes.) Siyue, meanwhile, who left the family's village to manage the Xinxiang factory, "shouldered the miseries of both urban life and rural life" as a "bowed-head" worker who aspired to a greater life in the city but remained stuck between social classes. Told in straightforward prose, this is a powerful family memoir of a tumultuous era of China's recent past.