Some novels are perhaps most memorable for the dominant mood and context of the narrative, rather than for the characters who people them, or the stories they tell. This, at least, is how I feel about this bleak, comfortless story, set in a small industrial town in China called Muddy River, built just twenty years earlier as part of a rural development program.
It’s actually not a bad little town; the seasons are beautiful, flowers bloom. The river is full of clean mountain water, not muddy at all. But the residents are mostly too preoccupied with their own survival – whether physical or spiritual, economic or political – to notice, or care.
The reader is immediately aware of the political and historical context of the story. This is China in 1979, in the post-Mao era when some economic and political reforms were being implemented by Deng Xiaoping. Students, workers and intellectuals wanted much wider political reforms – more “glasnost,” if you will; and the grassroots Democratic Wall Movement was born in Beijing. Of course, these hopes were literally crushed in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, where no one even knows how many protesters were killed by Chinese troops – maybe hundreds, maybe thousands.
It is a cold morning in March in Muddy River, and a “counter-revolutionary” – a once fanatical member of Mao’s Red Guard who became a pro-democracy activist – is to be publicly denounced and executed. Gu Shan is the 28-year-old daughter of a teacher and his wife, who are already mourning her in their different ways, separately and bitterly.
The proceedings are smoothly and sweetly guided by Kai, a former opera star and now the warm-voiced purveyor of government propaganda. Kai is the same age as the convict, but unlike the despised Gu Shan, she is greatly admired by all – especially by her doting husband, Han. After the denunciation, and the execution (on a small island in the river reserved for such purposes), the mayor will host a celebration banquet for the “close-knit circle of status” to which Kai and Han belong.
As the townspeople flock to the highly anticipated event, we are introduced to several more Muddy River residents whose lives are affected by Gu Shan’s death in all its brutality (her vocal cords are cut prior to the denunciation ceremony, in case she makes an anti-government speech). Their lives also begin to intersect, at times rather awkwardly, as the narrative begins to move from one to the other.
There is Tong, a seven year-old boy from the country who is eager to do the right thing (and his dog, Ear); Nini, a disabled girl with a large and uncaring family; Bashi, a social misfit; Jialin, a sickly dissident with nothing to lose; and Mr. and Mrs. Hua, the garbage collectors, who are as kind as they are poor. Their stories of faith and hopelessness are played out against the backdrop of the town: gossips in the marketplace, fiddle-playing beggars, sleeping couples, factory workers, boys getting into fights.
Pockets of rebellion begin to stir; there is an anti-government rally. Innocent actions become transgressions; casual words transform into weapons; callous indifference sparks betrayal and revenge. There is cruelty towards humans and animals – we are not spared the details – and moments of sheer horror.
Just now and then, we encounter kindness, warmth, even love in unlikely places. But, in this sparely written narrative, there is not enough love to go round. There are nameless, faceless men and women who are ready and waiting to clear away the remnants of that love, and of hope, at the end.
The main characters are eventually stretched so thin that a fatalistic despair sets in. We anticipate the ending long before it arrives. As young Tong’s teacher says, “Some people’s deaths are heavier than Mount Tai, and others’ are as light as a feather.”
Who are the vagrants in the title? The only vagrants in the true sense of the word are the Huas, who have never settled in one place for long. The others – like Teacher Gu and the disturbed Bashi – are impoverished, wandering souls, sometimes struggling against the tide, but mostly carried along by it, resigned to their fate. It is a deficit of passion that concerns me.
Of course, history tells us that theirs is a lost cause; but the motivation of our young counter-revolutionaries and the origin of their beliefs are never deeply explored, and the occasional discussions between them are flat and unconvincing. Perhaps it is the dour tone of the book that squeezes the life out of them. “What I own is my fortune; what I’m owed is my fate,” Teacher Gu tells his grieving wife.
There is little comfort, here.
Author Note: Yiyun Li was born in Beijing in 1972. In 1996 she went to the United States to pursue a PhD in Immunology, but after three years gave it up to become a writer. She worked in a hospital for three years, and then obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2005, her first short story 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. Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker among other publications. The Vagrants is her first novel, published in February, 2009. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two sons. Yiyun Li is Assistant Professor of English at University of California, Davis.