- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Random House (Feb 3 2009)
Contemporary literature by Chinese writers and others is filled to overflowing with wonderful works set in the time period of the Cultural Revolution and then, the more recent Tiananmen Square era of Chinese history, however, it is the period between these two mammoth events which marks the setting for Yiyun Li's stunning debut novel "The Vagrants".
It is somewhere in the late 1970's, actually March 21, 1979 to be precise, and an announcement has been made in a poor town of China called "Muddy River" that a young woman, called Gu Shan has renounced her Communist/Red Guard ties and will be executed for her dissent. On the day of her execution Gu Shan is presented onstage, her neck bloody where her vocal cords had been cut (to prevent her from shouting out counter revolutionary slogans) before being hauled off to her death.
The novel then proceeds to follow the lives of some of the citizens of Muddy River who attend the denunciation ceremony and as we read on we see the effect that this execution has on the community as a whole.
"The Vagrants" was inspired by the real case of a condemned woman whose kidneys were removed before (to be donated to a highly placed party official), and body mutilated after, her execution. Although this central event around which the book revolves is in itself is so shocking and riveting, it is the complexity and the depth of Yiyun Li's characters that make this book so interesting. For instance, there's 19-year old Bashi, a young, sexually curious "good-for-nothing", kind of person. Some critics have unfairly referred to him as a pedophile, but I think he was more of a simpleton longing to love and be loved...I think he just felt more comfortable around younger people because they were kinder to him. Then there's 12-year old Nini, deformed at birth on account of a kicking her pregnant mother received at the hands of the condemned Shan Gu. The incongruous love story between Nini and Bashi is probably the sweetest, most tender portion in the book.
We are also introduced to the Huas, former beggars, now trash collectors who in their younger years sometimes salvaged and raise abandoned babies,only to be forced, ultimately, to give up all of their adoptive daughters. It took me a while to figure out that they were the "Vagrants" of the story. There is also Kai, an anchorwoman of the propaganda department's daily loudspeaker broadcasts – but who puts her privileged life at risk by being one of the leaders of the protest after Shan Gu's (who was her former classmate) execution. The smaller characters are no less interesting...a child who betrays his father; another who kicks dogs; a man who desecrates corpses and so on.
Like Gu Shan, Kai's character was also based on a real-life character, who led a protest for the executed woman and who was then executed herself.
So what did I think of the novel? I think Yiyun Li does a splendid job of painting for the reader life in post-Mao China. We are buoyed by the stirrings of a democratic revival, but alas, it is short-lived and the people soon go back to their depraved, tormented lives. I guess, what I kept looking for, but never really found, was a few moments of happiness in all that grimness, a glimmer of hope in that tremendous bleakness. Just when I thought the lives of some of the characters were about to improve, things suddenly get worse for them. It is a very grim novel....lots of misery, sadness, cruelty and depravity and offers little in the way of optimism about Chinese society. Still, let that not keep you from reading this book...perhaps as we read about what it felt like to live in such a totalitarian society we will find gratitude in our hearts for the lives we lead currently.
About the Author: Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. The Vagrants is her debut novel.