Gerund's Reviews > The Vagrants

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
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May 12, 09

bookshelves: china-and-chinese, stuff-i-would-read-again
Read in April, 2009

A WRITER who was raised in one culture but writes in the language of another is a precious commodity for readers from the latter.

The writer is literally a translator of one culture into another: He is fully aware of the unique quirks of his birth culture that are alien, even incomprehensible, to his adopted one; yet because of this knowledge, he is also able to ensure that as little nuances as possible are lost in translation.

The Western world has been relatively lucky when it comes to attracting contemporary Chinese authors, thanks to the fact that quite a few of them have found it desirable to get as far away from the land of their birth as possible.

Why? Read their works, which tend to be about how nasty, brutish and not-short-enough life under the Chinese Communist Party can be.

The latest addition to this literary diaspora is Yiyun Li, a China-born writer who, like author Ha Jin of Waiting fame and Qiu Xiaolong of the Inspector Chen detective series, is now based in the United States.

Li first gained acclaim a few years ago when she published her debut collection of short stories, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers (2005), which netted her a slew of literary awards, including the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award.

With her first novel, the former immunology graduate student decisively shows that her much-decorated first collection was no beginner’s luck.
The Vagrants, set in the years immediately following the end of the Cultural Revolution, is a tragedy that will leave you heartbroken and somewhat dazed.

Li’s mastery of the traditional third person omniscient narrative form is seen in the novel’s sweeping opening, in which posters announcing the impending execution of a counterrevolutionary are going up in the pre-dawn streets of the fictional town of Muddy River.

The author introduces us to her cast of characters via their reactions to this announcement, allowing each a moment centrestage while establishing the ensemble nature of the story.

The educated Teacher Gu, an old man, cannot help but take note of the elegant calligraphy of the announcement, even though the words it shapes are the name and death sentence of his own daughter, Gu Shan.

Tong, a little boy, thinks Shan’s age of 28 is not too young to die, given that he has been taught in school the stories of child martyrs for the Communist cause.

Deformed young Nini, whose unmarriageability makes her all the greater a burden to her parents, can’t read the announcement, but peels the paper off the wall so she can eat the flour-based glue.

Local bum and pervert Bashi, who leads a comfortable life thanks to the legacy of his war hero father, feels sorry for Shan, then wonders if the doomed girl is still a “maiden”.

Then there is the privileged Kai, the beautiful radio news announcer who is doted on by her powerful husband, yet who is more closely linked to the suffering masses than is initially apparent.

These various lives are first drawn together by Shan’s execution, the run-up to which involves the expected ghoulish denunciation ceremony, and then by the less expected aftermath of her death, during which news of a “democracy wall” for free speech in Beijing encourages a group of idealistic Muddy River residents to stage a rally protesting Shan’s execution.

The dreams and desires of these individuals – who each have their own unattractive qualities but who are all strangely sympathetic – are shaped and subsumed by the larger politics of the uncertain time, where every move is a gamble for a better tomorrow.

As a character says at one point: “It’s the same old truth – the one who robs and succeeds will become the king, and the one who tries to rob and fails will be called a criminal.”

Yet you end up hoping against hope that things will end well, at least for some of them. But perhaps their situation is best symbolised by a hedgehog Bashi attempts to bake at one point, by rolling it into a ball of mud and putting it in hot ashes: The hibernating hedgehog awakens when placed near heat – but eventually it is this beckoning warmth that ends up cooking it alive.
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