- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE VAGRANTS

By Yiyun Li

Random House, $25, 337 pages

Reviewed by Corinna Lothar

Yiyun Li's first novel, “The Vagrants,” is stunning, written with cool detachment but passionate vitality. It's an extraordinary tale of life during the late 1970s in Muddy River, a 20-year-old provincial Chinese city, “a development planned to industrialize the rural area,” where emotional and physical poverty, greed and cruelty lead to searing sorrow.

This is not the China of one child per family. Many families have six or seven children. For most people here, two-room houses on alleys with public outhouses are the norm.

Nor is “The Vagrants” a political novel, despite the ever-present government. Instead, it's a vivid portrayal of humanity in an oppressive system, where cynicism is balanced by kindness, cruelty and betrayal are tempered by devotion to duty and family.

Miss Li introduces the reader to her sometimes unrelated characters, each with his or her own story. It is through the aftermath of the execution that begins the novel that the disparate stories entwine.

Twenty-eight-year-old Gu Shan was one day “the leader of the Red Guards, the next day a counterrevolutionary, waiting for a bullet” - a bullet paid for, according to custom, by her parents. She is executed ignobly after the requisite denunciation ceremony in the town square.

In their two-room house, Teacher Gu and his wife await the final moments of their daughter's life. Teacher Gu is an educated man, demoted from university professor to schoolteacher for his “bourgeois” background; he believes in education, in reason and in abiding by the law. After his daughter's execution, he speaks bitterly of women who “think they are revolutionary, progressive, they think they are doing a great favor to the world by becoming masters of their own lives, but what is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive?”

Gu Shan's execution sets off a series of events that Teacher Gu could not have foreseen, beginning with the evolution of his submissive wife into an activist who calls her daughter a martyr. “A martyr serves a cause as a puppet serves a show. … [A] martyr has always served the purpose of deception on a grand scale, be it a religion or an ideology,” Teacher Gu tells his wife.

During her revolutionary heyday, Shan kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach, causing the baby to be born crippled. Now 12 years old, Nini, the oldest of six children, is despised, humiliated, beaten and used by her family as an unpaid servant. “She accepted the benevolence of the world, as much as she did its cruelty, just as she was resigned to her body being born deformed.”

Bashi, at 19, is an outcast of another kind: Immature, thoughtless and unattractive, he was ignored or rejected by the townspeople. Yet “he loved people and loved talking to them” to the point of gossiping. Obsessed with finding out what a girl looks like without clothes, he goes to Hunchback Island, where the bodies of executed counterrevolutionaries are left to rot, to peer at Shan's body.

A strange friendship develops between Bashi and Nini. Despite their initial mutual distrust, they fall in love - he touched by her devotion to him, she overwhelmed by his apparent kindness. Bashi's genuine concern when he seeks information about the victims of a fire caused by Nini's carelessness results in his shameful betrayal of friends and enemies.

On the other side of the town's social spectrum is Kai, a beautiful, privileged young woman. She was chosen to become an actress and is Muddy River's governmental radio announcer. Kai's life is conformist: She is married to Han, a successful functionary she doesn't love; she has a baby boy she adores. She reads the announcements at Gu Shan's denunciation ceremony but is filled with “a sickness” when she sees “[w]hat was left of Shan after the murder of her spirit and before the execution of her body - soiled prison uniform and severed vocal cords, half-opened mouth and empty eyes, and a weightless body in a policeman's grip. … “She learns that Shan's kidneys were removed clandestinely to further Han's career.

Kai has joined a clandestine group that organizes a public meeting seeking an investigation into the death of Gu Shan. At the meeting, attendees are asked to sign their names to a petition. Government retribution is swift and harsh. Dozens are arrested and imprisoned, including the novel's only truly compassionate characters, Old Hua and Mrs. Hua, who have spent their lives as wandering beggars, rescuing unwanted baby girls left to die and raising them as their daughters.

Kai is arrested with the rest of the organizers. She alone is sentenced to death for “a warning to the masses would not be effective without a death sentence. 'Kill a chicken to frighten all the mischievous monkeys into obedience' ” is the official viewpoint.

Bashi is sentenced to a long prison term for “kidnapping” a child (Nini). Nini runs away from her family and goes with the Huas, who were arrested, released and are going back to a life on the road.

Miss Li connects the fates of these and other characters into a circumstantial net that combines acts of courage, cruelty, cowardice, venality and perversion. But the human spirit always endures, and even the inhospitable frozen ground of Hunchback Island is redeemed by the coming of spring, “when wild peach and plum trees blossomed along the riverbank, their fragrance carried by the spring breeze though open windows and into people's houses.”

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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