As it does to our lives at present, death—virulent, episodic, unbidden—haunts Yan Lianke’s memoir Three Brothers. First published in 2009, and rendered into English by translator and Sinologist Carlos Rojas, it is an elegiac homage to the people and places no longer present for Yan (at least not physically), who has spent the better part of his life oscillating (both physically and emotionally) between city and countryside in search of home.
Like many born into privation, Yan has never quite left it. “I grew up in a household full of poverty and warmth,” he writes. The Sisyphean lives of his father and uncles, with their hand-to-mouth existences amid grinding rural poverty in 1960s and 1970s China, are the lives of countless Chinese subsistence farmers and factory workers, and Yan reflects upon them with puzzlement and awe, nostalgia and regret.
As the son, nephew, cousin, and brother of a generation of men and women who lived “like dust in the wind”, the earth-brown, dust-grey, and blood-red experiences of childhood marked him. “I began to ponder the relationship between my writing and this land,” Yan writes in his preface. “I noticed that while the land could very easily do without me, I couldn’t survive without the land.”
And so, years later, he returns to it. We learn of the author’s backbreaking work alongside his cousin in a Xinxiang cement factory; of the “absolute necessity” of work for his peasant father and how “time would flow under his hoe and disappear”, or the terrible toll that building houses for his children would exact on his body, with asthma at thirty and death a mere eighteen years later; of First Uncle’s hands “that were always exposed to the cold, which meant that the backs of his hands were always cracked and bloody, each crack resembling the mouth of a crying baby”; of Fourth Uncle covered in grease, sweat, and blood from mending a factory machine for the next shift of workers, only to have his monthly salary docked by fifty percent for undermining “not only production but also the revolution” due to the delays. Each struggled in life until they were forced by ill health, circumstances, or fate to struggle against death.
The passing of Yan’s father was portentous. With his family’s protective wall having been breached, “the wind […] prematurely toppled the life trees of two children”, his cousins Tiecheng and Lianyun. Only seventeen, the latter was struck by a truck driven by a drunk driver. Only a year older, Tiecheng hung himself shortly after joining the army. As Yan reflects,
One moment, his life was fresh, like a drop of dew illuminated by the morning sun, but a month later that person was no more, and there wasn’t even a corpse. Instead, there was only ice-cold urn full of ashes.
Reading and writing, however, become “a secret life” as well as a chance “to travel back and forth between home and another place.” While living in military barracks in the late 1970s, Yan “became enthralled by the solemnity and even the smell of China’s literary journals.”
Western authors nourish him through harsh winter nights. A contraband copy of Dream of the Red Chamber leaves him “covered in sweat and with shaking hands.”
The work of memory is often laborious, its insights frequently uninvited, but memory relies on language, and Yan’s can be inventive and even exquisite. Within the margins of his text, as in the margins of the lives of his father and uncles, one encounters unexpected moments of everyday beauty. A telephone network is described as “covering everywhere like an endless web, making the world seem as small as a man’s fist.” The departure of educated youths from the countryside “was like hearing that the wind had blown away the clouds.” When his father was working, Yan “liked to stand next to him and step on his shadow.” Some clocks “resemble a sparrow sitting on a branch.” The inner room of a house is “much darker than the outer one, and the rays of light were very dim, like the breath of a sick person.” His uncle’s tears fall “like rain pouring off a roof unto the earth below.” Happiness and the mystery of life are “like a book whose location I knew but I was unable to open.”
Despite his family’s toil and hardship, the deprivation and the many deaths, life endures. “Even if an entire nation, or a people, undergoes a devastating tragedy, the earth will continue orbiting the sun,” he writes. “Disaster always signals both an end and a new beginning.”