The Vagrants, Yiyun Li’s first novel, is a masterfully crafted and grippingly told account of a dark moment in the life of a provincial town in Li’s native China. It affords a revealing and horrifyingly naturalistic glimpse into the grim conditions of existence in the People’s Republic during the period between the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, although the immediate events of the novel are contained within the spring of 1979.
Although The Vagrants is Li’s first novel, it is her second book of fiction. Her debut book was a much-lauded and prize-winning short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), set partially in Li’s adopted country of the United States, but mainly in China. (Wayne Wang’s film adaptation of the title story garnered the top award at the 2007 San Sebastián Festival.) Li arrived in the United States in 1996, and she has joined the ranks of émigré writers who have become adept and expert in English, such as Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ha Jin. Like Conrad, Li offers in The Vagrants a searing glimpse into the horror that can overtake humanity at a dark time in an obscure corner of the earth.
The horrific event at the center of the novel is the execution of Gu Shan, a twenty-eight-year-old counterrevolutionary woman, on March 21, 1979. Li dates the event to coincide with the vernal equinox, suggesting a bloody rite of spring. The novel is set in the fictional Muddy River, a provincial town planned twenty years previously and now grown to a population of eighty thousand. As a teenager, Shan was a leading zealot of the Red Guard during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution unleashed by Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1960’s. This reign of terror and “reeducation” was led by Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) and the Gang of Four against intellectuals and supposed bourgeois reactionaries. Shan’s thinking changed, however, and she dared to criticize Maoat a time before it was politically correct to do so. Such independent thought is something that her father, Teacher Gu, cultivated in her.
As a result of her actions, Shan has been imprisoned for ten years, retried (after losing her sanity), judged politically incorrigible, and sentenced to be shot. The logic of this justice is ironic, absurd, and horrible. The execution is preceded by a ritual denunciation, which is compulsory for all the town’s schoolchildren and workers to attend and which provides Li with her narrative lens. The novel relates its narrative events through multiple points of view, ranging from a seven-year-old’s to a sixty-year-old’s and providing both a panoramic and a particularized sense of the community. The effect created is reminiscent of that generated by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr., pb. 1938) tinged with the brooding malevolence of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) and Albert Camus’s interrogation of the absurd in La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948).
Teacher Gu, the condemned woman’s father, provides the first of the book’s multiple narrative points of view. The novel begins as he and his wife wake up to their daughter’s last day on Earth. He tries to be philosophical (“Everybody dies” is his repeated mantra), while his wife is full of bitter resentment. Defiantly, she sets off to burn her daughter’s clothes at a crossroads, enacting a politically incorrect superstition that burning Shan’s possessions will allow her to access them in the afterlife. She is arrested for her action.
The narrative consciousness quickly shifts to Tong, a seven-year-old boy from a poor family who is out on a morning ramble with his dog, Ear. They run into Old Hua, a garbage collector, whose wife is pasting posters of Shan’s execution on walls. The narrative viewpoint then shifts to Nini, a twelve-year-old girl who has been awakened by a dog’s bark (Ear’s, perhaps); born with a lame leg and a paralyzed hand to poor and abusive parents, she must forage for food in the morning, licking the paste off Mrs. Hua’s posters, scavenging for coal at the railroad, and showing up hopefully for breakfast at the Gus, who have mysteriously been kind to her over the years.
The narrative shifts again to Bashi, the nineteen-year-old son of a Communist hero (a pilot who actually died during a tonsillectomy). Though made comparatively well-off by his father’s pension, Bashi is regarded as the town idiot because of his odd behavior and unprepossessing appearance. He is obsessed by sex, and, scorned by women, he now plans to pay the Huas to find him a thrown-away baby girl to bring up for his purposes.
Later, the narrative shifts to Kai, the town’s premier woman radio announcer and a former schoolmate of Shan. She has married into the political elite, and, as the voice of the...
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