Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Winds of change blow through the isolated city of Muddy River

One morning, the once ardent young soldier of the Cultural Revolution, Gu Shan, who just as ardently turned against Communism, is executed after spending ten years, the flower of her youth, in a brutal prison. She wasted her life because of a belief in slogans, and has gone mad, thinking she is Chairman Mao’s girlfriend. This novel tells the story of how her execution affects the town as well as the many characters entwined with her fate.  

We learn about Gu Shan’s parents, Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu.  Their marriage, in which he is an educated man whose parents met in Paris, and she an illiterate concubine who was freed during the revolution, tells you all you need to know about the forces shaping modern China. Kai, a successful newscaster who has it all, rich husband, beautiful baby son, remembers fervent Gu Shan from their youth, and, influenced by a mortally ill young man who loves her, decides to strike a blow against repression. The Huas, presumably the Vagrants of the title, are the city’s junk collectors. They have a good heart and adopted six daughters found abandoned on their rounds. But after the revolution, officials packed the girls off to different orphanages.  Now the Huas have nothing but each other and their memories. 

This is historical fiction and this novel will help the reader understand China better than a number of scholarly articles. But it’s fiction first, history second. A gripping story, cleverly plotted, with lots of characters. Overall, the book was depressing and essentially every single character has his heart broken. Also, the novel (intentionally or not) makes China look bad. To western eyes the culture comes off as heartless. There no caritas here just people stomping on the necks of other people. Dog eat dog. (Literally) The prose is simple and beautiful but many times I was shocked by the brutality of the memorable images. At the end, even that dog gets it between the eyes, although a tiny bit of hope is offered, when the crippled girl runs away with the rag pickers. Are they all Vagrants then? Even though it was unpleasant reading this book (sometimes highly unpleasant), I thought about the characters long after finishing the final page.

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