The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

January 4, 2010

I am disappointed that The Vagrants has not received more attention and respect from the major outlets and prize organizations. Far inferior novels, in my opinion, made it onto the New York Times list of notable books, for instance.

Yiyun Li has not only written an engaging novel, but she has something to say about the world, something not banal. Something daring, in fact.

The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a large town in China, during the late 1970s, after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

[T]he end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979 were auspicious for Muddy River as well as for the nation. Two years earlier, Chairman Mao had passed away and within a month, Madame Mao and her gang in the central government had been arrested, and together they had been blamed for the ten years of Cultural Revolution that had derailed the country. News of national policies to develop technology and the economy was delivered by rooftop loudspeakers in cities and the countryside alike, and if a man was to travel from one town to the next, he would find himself, like the blind beggar mapping this part of the province near Muddy River with his old fiddle and his aged legs, awakened at sunrise and then lulled to sleep by the same news read by different announcers; spring after ten long years of winter, these beautiful voices sang in chorus, forecasting a new Communist era full of love and progress.

Voices from loudspeakers can rarely be trusted, especially when making promises of either love and progress. But the mood in China is changing. The coming denunciation of a counterrevolutionary figure, Gu Shan, is a reminder that the brutal political struggles and repression continue, but ceremony feels more like an end than a continuation of the past.

The novel opens in the home of Shan’s parents, Teacher Gu and his sobbing wife, Mrs. Gu. Shan is scheduled to be executed on this day and the system is intentionally cruel:

It had never occurred to Teacher Gu that he and his wife were to pay for the bullet that would take their daughter’s life, but why question such absurdity when it was not his position to ask? He signed, and counted out the price of the bullet, twenty-four cents, for the two men. The price of two pencils, or a few ears of corn — what he had often bought for his poorer students.

Being the parents of an adult child who is scheduled to be executed makes the Gus specially tragic figures, but Yiyun Li has not chosen to focus on a particular character or on this particular family, as central as they are to events in the novel. The cast is large and, at first, connected only by the town. Still, Li writes of each with an intimacy that is touching or disturbing, depending on the character. Each of them is disfigured, whether physically, morally, spiritually, or psychologically, by the totalitarian Chinese system.

The camera lens slowly backs away from the Gus to place Muddy River in both geographic and political context, then zooms in on Tong, a seven year old boy who believes himself to be destined for heroism. Li’s continual shifting is very cinematic, sometimes even sweeping through the homes of unnamed characters for only a paragraph before returning to one of the more central characters. Of those, there are plenty and by the end of the book, connections are made between them all.

In addition to the Gus, Tong, Tong’s loving mother, and his drunkard father, there are: the Huas, an old couple who used to live as vagrants and who take in abandoned baby girls who they are usually forced to give up again as child brides or for other reasons; a crippled girl named Nini who has parents who treat her horribly and numerically-named younger siblings treated much better; Lu Bashi who lives with his grandmother, is regarded as the village idiot, and begins the novel with troubling sexual interests; the star radio announcer Kai, who was a rival of Gu Shan’s in elementary school; Kwen, a darkly powerful figure living on the outskirts of the town’s political and social life; Jialin, a sickly young man working for freedom of expression and democratic ideals.

In the early sections, we get to know each of these characters, their families, Muddy River, and the political climate of late 1970s China. The fear, the snooping neighbors, the political maneuvering, and difficult conditions of everyday living are familiar to those who have read much Soviet literature or novels set in communist countries. There is always an overriding fear of being denounced as somehow anti-communist. Even successful strivers live with the fear of missing a shift in the political winds and being devoured by the machine.

These issues, as important as they are and as uniquely troubling as the Chinese setting makes them, are only the most obvious target of this fine book. The effect these systems have on character and family life provide potent drama, but Li uses these somewhat familiar ideas to examine issues of morality and right and wrong more specifically. She is able to question whether right and wrong can survive as intelligible concepts in such a chaotic system.

In a memorable scene, Tong’s mother explains to him one way of viewing the world under a totalitarian system:

“Which side is right?”

“The side where your teachers and principals stand. Always follow what’s been taught and you won’t make a mistake.”

Tong thought about a few teachers he had seen the day before at the rally…”Don’t think too much about these meaningless things,” Tong’s mother said. “If you stay in line you’ll never be in the wrong place. And if you do nothing wrong, you will never fear anything, even when the ghosts come to knock on your door at midnight.”

Even this careful worldview cannot keep the lives of Tong and his parents from intersecting with the forces of repression that dominate Muddy River. After all, one must not only be on the right side of the line as it stands today, but predict where it will be tomorrow. Even maintaining an apparently neutral middle ground can be deadly.

Others are more proactive, recognizing the danger all about. On one camera sweep through the hospital, Li gives access to a prominent doctor’s alternative view:

The man thought about his wife and his daughters — they were fast asleep in their innocent dreams, unplagued by death and blood; the burden was on his shoulders, the man of the household, and he found it hard not to ponder the day when he could no longer shelter them, the two daughters especially, from the ugliness of a world that they were in love with now, rosebudlike girls that they were. What then? he wondered, painfully aware of his limitations as a man trapped between practicality and conscience. In the end, he had to make himself believe that he had chosen the best for his family.

This otherwise anonymous man seems to realize the central struggle. Totalitarianism necessarily places “practicality and conscience” at odds. But, even choosing conscience over practicality is no guarantee of doing good, of getting things right. Ignoring practicalities may not only be dangerous, but actively evil.

Teacher Gu wonders whether that is so while watching a poor girl at a train station. He considers the consequences of helping poor girls go to school, to learn to read, the consequences knowledge and freethinking have brought on his wife and daughter, Shan:

Shan would never have become a frantic Red Guard if she hadn’t been able to read the enticements of the Cultural Revolution in the newspapers; nor would she have become a prisoner, by spelling out her doubts, had he never taught her to think for herself, rather than to follow the reasoning of the invisible masses. His wife would have simply endured the loss of Shan in painful silence, as all illiterate women endured the loss of their children, surrendering them to an indisputable fate and putting their only hope in the next life.

This theme of a winless situation, simple endurance, is repeated throughout. Kai, while watching her ambitious husband practice in the mirror, momentarily wonders if he could have been a good person in other circumstances, but almost immediately sees a mirrored danger too:

Had Han been born to parents of less status, perhaps the boyish innocence would have made him, in addition to being a good husband and a good father, a good person, but then that innocence might have long ago been crushed by the harshness of life.

I believe this novel may have fared better with awards committees and the general public if it was more sparing of its characters, more optimistic, less real. The moral tests posed in the communist China of the 1970s cannot be passed. There is little more for these characters than to survive to a better time, help their children survive a cold world. At least, this is the lesson life has taught two nameless old men watching a political demonstration:

For every poor soul who was dragged down by this, the two wise men contemplated, there would be another one up for a promotion. A balance of the social energy, one said, and the other nodded and added that, indeed, to climb up in this country, you’d have to use someone else as a stepping stone. Neither bothered to take up his own past, as both understood that to be safe and sound in their age, they had had their share of bodies underneath their feet to keep them afloat, and those stories were no longer relevant, their shame and guilt absolved by old age.

That is not to say the novel presents only a barren meanness. There are tender moments, humor, and love. The complications of love are quite poignant. It is in those moments when characters let down their guard, when they forget the world outside and focus only on those about whom they truly care, that the townspeople of Muddy River, as any of us, can love.

[H]ow easily one could forget…that the world was still the same place of cold-heartedness and animosity, and that the small fire of friendship could do only so much to keep one warm and hopeful.

An instant, a day, a week of connection is fleeting. The outside forces are crushingly intrusive. This book reveals the world as it is rather than as we would have it. The truths revealed are not only about the world in which the characters live, but about the world in which we live too. Sometimes, extreme circumstances illuminate as well as distort. This is a book of wisdom, in the tradition of 1984, The Master and Margarita, The Gulag Archipelago, and Schindler’s List/Ark. Even if The Vagrants does not reach those same heights, it attempts them and is one of the more worthwhile books from 2009.