Thursday, February 17, 2011

*The Vagrants, by Li Yiyun

Random House
349 pp
Trade Paper edition - 2010; originally published 2009

The Vagrants is Li Yiyun's first novel, set in the People's Republic of China in 1979 in a provincial town called Muddy River. China's Cultural Revolution is over and Mao has been dead for three years. Most of the action takes place between two executions -- the first that of Gu Shan. When she was fourteen, she had been a "fanatic believer in Chairman Mao and his cultural revolution," but then changed her mind as she got older, becoming an "adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation's revolutionary zeal." She made the mistake of putting her doubts into a letter she wrote to her boyfriend, who turned her in to the authorities. For his action, he was allowed to join the army; she was put into prison, and eventually executed. But before her death, the townspeople turn out for her denunciation ceremony -- a circus-like atmosphere in which songs are sung, speeches are made and people, including schoolchildren, are shouting revolutionary slogans. The story goes on with the execution's aftermath and its effects on several people, including her mother and father and others in the town.  It's a story about betrayals -- official ones like the one that sent Gu Shan to prison and the other, more personal ones people face in life, and a story about the uncertainties of living in a country where things change rapidly, creating uncertainty in the lives of the people.

There are several characters through whom the story passes, and rather than leave the story in the hands of one or two of these people, the author presents her story through a more omniscient viewpoint.  Gu Shan's execution is a jumping-off point for the novel, and since the author gave her no voice of her own, her story is told through the eyes of others in little bits and pieces to be collected by the reader. Somewhere in their stories the real Gu Shan exists. These people range from the powerful to the poor, but all are looking for something more permanent in a situation where the political landscape that seems to be always changing, so that no one knows what the next day might bring. Not everyone sees things in terms of politics here; some people are just trying to survive, while others do their best after personal disappointments to get by; but inevitably, the truth is that no one is immune to the whims of the government, especially during this time period, when there's a great deal of  political upheaval going on throughout the country.  Not even the political higher-ups of the town are immune from the changing winds of Beijing:

There were clearly two camps, both with significant representation in the central government and among party leaders. Were the leaflets in Muddy River the spawn of the democratic wall seven hundred miles away? And what should they do, which side should they take? -- the questions puzzled those people who had never worried over the lack of a meal, a bed or a job. Offices became minefields where one had to watch out for oneself, constantly defining and redefining friends, enemies, and chameleons who could morph from friends to enemies and then back again. With their fates and their families' futures in their hands, these people sleepwalked by day and shuddered by night.

The most interesting character in the novel is Teacher Gu, father of Shan, a rather confused and fatalistic sort of man who lives in a world largely defined through his nostalgia for times past, and whose advice has always been to stay small and remain unnoticed, even while events around him seem to spiral out of control.

The Vagrants is one of those books that has a lot of rave reviews but truthfully I didn't love it. It's not because of the subject matter; there are many books that describe different historical periods of the People's Republic in much more harrowing detail.  Less characters and more of a focus might have tightened up this novel to make it flow better.  It reads like a series of vignettes where the story drops off to be picked up later, and there are a number of diversions (such as with the characters Nini and Bashi) that often give the story more of a rambling quality.  I understand that the author is trying to give the story more of a collective viewpoint, but it was a bit grating at times to be in the middle of a storyline and then have things shift.

I'd recommend this book to readers who are interested in historical fiction and who like books from authors like Lisa See. Li is a talented author, but if you want something more serious, there are several authors that write more intensely about the People's Republic --  I'd suggest authors more along the lines of Yu Hua, Su Tong, Yan Lianke or Bi Feiyu.

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