The Vagrants, Yiyun Li. Random House. 352pp, $25.00.
I have to admit I have recently become addicted to memoirs documenting the harrowing experiences of immigrants fleeing China’s late 20th century political maelstrom. Starting with Zhang Boli’s Escape from China, I went on to read Zhu Xiao Di’s Thirty Years in a Red House, and Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China. I have also read portions of the popular Wild Swans by Jung Chang and the voluminous Vermilion Gate by Aiping Mu, works of great merit and beauty. I have fallen, without realizing it, under a spell. That is, until I began reading Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants. The book awakened me to those hundreds of thousands of lives that remain trapped. And then yesterday, reading Narrative Magazine’s interview with Junot Diaz, I came across the truth to which I had not wanted to admit: “Immigration is a process that tends to self-select certain kinds of people,” says Diaz, “which is a way of saying that immigrants tend to be superhuman already. To leave everything behind takes a superhuman act of will, even for those who did it accidentally or flippantly.”
The epigraph to Li’s The Vagrants (a portion of W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”) prepares the reader for a narrative that deals with those who are not “superhuman”:
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes liked to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
The Vagrants concerns itself with the small people, those found in the local market, the alleys, the deserted places, the places where dogs wander, where baby girls are left out in the elements, where so-called counterrevolutionaries are shot and forgotten. They live and work in the provincial town of Muddy River, whose name is a misnomer, for “in summer boys swimming in the river could look up from underwater at the wavering sunshine through the transparent bodies of busy minnows, while their sisters, pounding laundry on the boulders along the bank, sometimes sang revolutionary songs in chorus, their voices as clear and playful as the water.” The close alliance of children and the Revolution is a theme that is visited again when one of the children, the most powerless of them all, informs on his fellow townspeople in order to become “the youngest counterrevolutionary in this political storm,” a “hero.”
The official language for things, such as the town name, the boy “hero,” and “counterrevolutionary criminals” is revealed as a hollow language disconnected from reality. It does not signify anything at all, in fact: the official language has no bearing on the truth. It is the babbling of children, the babbling of a running stream. In The Vagrants’ opening scene, Teacher Gu, the father of the “unrepentant counterrevolutionary” at the center of this sprawling story, despondently observes that nature also doesn’t need our naming, that words used for the changing seasons are as arbitrary as the date set for his daughter to die, as arbitrary as her “crime”:
The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket. A day of equality it was, or so it had occurred to Teacher Gu many times when he had pondered the date, the spring equinox, and again the thought came to him: their daughter’s life would end on this day, when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned. A day later the sun would come closer to her and to the others on this side of the world, imperceptible perhaps to dull human eyes at first, but birds and worms and trees and rivers would sense the change in the air, and they would make it their responsibility to manifest the changing of the seasons. How many miles of river melting and how many trees of blossoms blooming would it take for the season to be called spring? But such naming must mean little to the rivers and flowers, when they repeat their rhythms with faithfulness and indifference. The date set for his daughter to die was as arbitrary as her crime, determined by the court, of being an unrepentant counterrevolutionary; only the unwise would look for significance in a random date.
The Vagrants is reminiscent of Li’s short story “Immortality” in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers; that story employs the first-person plural to great effect and deals with a subject important to The Vagrants: the long, tall shadow of Mao Zedong. However, “Immortality,” ending as it does during the brief window of hope at the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping era, sees the dissolution of Mao’s seemingly unbreakable hold over China’s will and imagination.
The Vagrants begins and ends in a different time, a time when the dead dictator still rules from the grave via his designated successor, Hua Guofeng. The novel is loosely based upon true events—an execution of a female “unrepentant counterrevolutionary” and the execution of the woman who organized townspeople to protest this death—and its Muddy River is an actual town situated on the border between North Korea and China (since renamed White Mountain for the sake of the tourist trade). It takes place at the time of Beijing Spring when the Democracy Wall Movement became a vehicle of free expression, a movement that was summarily quashed but which nonetheless prefigured the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The ending of The Vagrants is also reminiscent of the 1976 Tiananmen Incident when Zhou Enlai’s mourners were severely punished for protesting the removal of their paper chrysanthemums, poems, and wreaths on Qingming, a traditional Chinese festival in which ancestors are honored and remembered at their gravesites.
What Li has managed to do is to show is how a force, embodied by an oppressive, reactionary governmental regime, a somewhat tangential but nonetheless pervasive presence, can turn human beings against one another, twisting loyalties and trust, destroying and corroding community, decency, hope, life. The true heroes of the novel are indeed “the vagrants,” Mr. and Mrs. Hua; they prefer to move along following the final fallout after having adopted the disfigured Nini, carrying with them little but hopes, both for themselves and for the discarded daughters they have cared for along the way. Most certainly their hope is very slender.
And yet The Vagrants is not simply about political struggle or “bad” elements pitted against the “good.” Li’s choice to narrate from the omniscient third-person makes this oversimplification impossible. Rather than work from the first-person, or even a limited third, Li’s fully omniscient narrator often touches down into the private lives of a seemingly innumerable cast of characters. The result is an almost seamless story arc coupled with incredibly well rounded characters. The only flat characters are those who show unswerving loyalty to the Party, as well as characters whose presence seems to contribute to the scenery, mood, or situation. There are many characters whose shades of gray Li refreshingly reveals by her storytelling method, among them: a censor who becomes engrossed with the letters written by a villager to his first wife; a boy who cries inconsolably over his missing dog but who wants the red scarf of a Young Pioneer so badly that he will inform on family and friends to Party officials; an outcast who intends to molest girls, but who is transformed through love.
While the reader is privy to the individual dreams and longings of the villagers—ironically, these hopes often will never be expressed to another person because of cultural dictates, personal foibles, and politically induced fear—the narrator quietly draws up the threads that makes this a collective narrative, a story about a people delivered through their innermost thoughts and collective gossip. The narrator seems to be less of a voice and more of an editor, working quietly behind the scenes to cut and clip silent thoughts and revelations. Here is an example of how Li handles quick jumps between scenes, beginning with a police interrogation, then switching to a conversation between a policewoman and her colleagues (these characters appear suddenly and then vanish, but their presence is significant), then to a narrator’s report about the gossip floating around Muddy River:
Nini ate, slept, and cried for four days in Bashi’s house before she was discovered by the police. . . . When questioned about why they had not reported the two missing daughters, her father said nothing but that he had forgotten the girls when he had to tend to two daughters who had been burned in a house fire as well as a wife who had miscarried. How could parents forget a daughter? A young policewoman asked her colleagues, and they replied that worse things had happened to other children, and she’d better toughen herself up for her line of work.
The tales, of the body parts from the executed woman, and the incarcerated girl discarded by her own parents who had begun to have feelings for her kidnapper, traveled from mouth to mouth, ear to ear; for the time being, they were the only topics safe to discuss in Muddy River, and people invented details, their imaginations drowning their fears of a life they did not understand.
In the end, punishment is delivered to the execution’s protestors, but not before Li’s shifting viewpoint moves from a meeting between the mayor and a high ranking party official to the townspeople’s “nightly drinking, arguing, lovemaking.” Retribution, perhaps seen as the hand of fate by the villagers, is revealed to readers through a chilling awareness of Party movements.
In interviews, Yiyun Li has asserted that she does not want to be known as a political writer. Her mastery of stylistic choices in The Vagrants and her humanistic portrayals of her characters suggest as much. In one of Teacher Gu’s letters, Li reveals a character removed from political rhetoric, a person whose resignation to fate is deftly expressed. In an interview appended to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers Li herself says that her favorite adage is the Chinese saying: “For someone to achieve anything he has to first work as hard as he can; whether he is allowed the achievement, however, is determined afterwards by the heavenly power.” This fatalism, as well as a desire to remain apolitical, is reflected in Teacher Gu’s last letter to his ex-wife, a Party member. It is a lyric example of Li’s art:
Recently, I have been going over the Buddhist scriptures. No, they are not in front of my eyes—the scriptures my grandfather left me, as you may imagine, did not survive the revolutionary fire, started by none other than my own daughter. The scriptures I have been reading, however, are written in my mind. I am sure that this is of little interest to you with your Communist atheism, but do imagine with me, for one moment, the Buddha sitting under the holy tree and speaking once and again to his disciples. He who was said to be the wisest among the wise, he who was said to have vast and endless love for the world—who was he but an old man with blind hope, talking tirelessly to a world that would never understand him? We become prisoners of our own beliefs, with no one free to escape such a fate, and this, my dearest friend, is the only democracy offered by the world.
Meg Sefton graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2008 with an MFA in creative writing. Her short story “Deborah” has appeared in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. Meg lives in Florida with her husband, her son, and a very large Bouvier des Flanders, and since writing her last review for The Quarterly Conversation has acquired a Coton de Toulear.
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