Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

  • 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.


Zibilee said...

This book sounds tremendously interesting, but also very sad. I would like to read it, and have put it on my wish list. Great review!

bARE-eYED sUN said...

jeeeze, we dunno,

sounds like a VERY good read . . . for someone, we like reality, but summertime is meant for escapism. :-0

o'course, it is tempting, specially after such a thought-provoking review, buy, nah . . .we pass on this one.

hey, thanks for the post, :-)


Nikki in Niagara said...

Great review! Yours is the first I've seen someone else review this. I too loved the book, sad as it was. I also love the story of Nini and Bashi and the idea of Bashi being a pedophile never once crossed my mind. Some critics just have dirty minds, I think.

Madeleine said...

This book sounds very interesting.

I will pass this one this year, I have Duong Thu Huong's novel "NO MAN'S LAND" to read, she was a sort of political celebrity in Vietnam, now exiled to France. The book is 700 pages long, small writitng.

I like your choice of books

Lotus Reads said...

@Zibilee ~ Yes, I do see you enjoying this one. Well, enjoying is, perhaps,the wrong word to use for a book like "The Vagrants", but you know what I'll find this a good read Zibilee. Let me know if you want my copy.

@Bareyedsun ~ Hey, thank you for your comment! You're right, many readers and publishers (especially),would have us read for the season (beach reads for the summer, classics for the long winters etc.)but I have never been one to subscribe to this way of reading. I just read whatever takes my fancy, no matter the weather! :) However, I might consider reading a few short stories this summer, let's see how it goes!

Lotus Reads said...

@Nicola ~ Welcome! I think one of Yiyun Li's great strengths is her ability to produce wonderful characters. We might not like them all, but she does wonders with fleshing them out and making them so human. Yes, I think Bashi was misunderstood because he was really such a simpleton, but a slightly cunning one at that,(don't know if I am making much sense,lol). I also liked how the author used small, insignificant little Tong to cause such irreparable damage, but Nini and Bashi were my favorite couple!

Lotus Reads said...

Madeleine, at 700 pages that's a huge book for sure and probably just as bleak as "The Vagrants"! I cannot wait to hear what you think of the read. I am so intimidated by door stoppers that I am not sure i'd have the guts to read this book, but I would sure savour a nice review. I will be looking for yours!

Unknown said...

Yikes! It sounds really, really hardcore. Did you have to put it down a few times just to go out and smell the roses? I know sometimes those are the best books, but I do find them hard to read.

J said...

What a lovely review of a heartbreaking story. Thank you for this...not sure if I'll pick it up or not, but...maybe.

karmic said...

Hi. Lotus. How are you? I have to say that the dark nature of this book makes it a hard read, but you have distilled what the book is about most wonderfully in your post. Enjoyed reading it.
Do you think the cultural revolution and Tiananmen square incident compare similarly? I think the former had a larger impact. The latter was squelched and did not spread. I would grant though that both are important events.
I agree with you that reading this book reminds a lot of us about the lives we lead here and how different they are from life in a totalitarian state.

Gwendolyn B. said...

This book is on my wish list - which is waaay too long. Nice job with the review. You've renewed my interest and I'll have to move it up on the list.

Lotus Reads said...

@Angela ~ I know what you mean, but no, I kept reading on firmly believing that the fortunes of the protagonists were going to change...boy, was I so wrong! Reminded me a little of what Rohinton Mistry likes to do with his characters...

@Julie ~ You are welcome. As grim as it is, it is a recommended read, if for nothing else than to help us appreciate the lives we have.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj

Thanks for your comment! No, the aim wasn't to compare the two events, I just wanted to point out that the era between the two (when democracy was a fledgling thought in China) has remained largely untapped by authors before now.

@Gwendolyn ~ Welcome! I know what you mean...those wishlists can get out of control! I resort to audio books sometimes to hurry them up, but it's not the same. Glad the review was of some help.

karmic said...

Lotus, I am not sure what you mean when you say the time between the two periods has been untapped. I am nowhere as well read as you are. Perhaps books about Tiananmen can't be written easily without incurring the wrath of the government, the cultural revolution has been discredited (and hence easy to write about?)Maybe it is a lot easier to write about the "new" China and maybe that is why not enough has been written about the intervening period. Of course I could be so wrong it is not even funny!
Thank you for the response.