Thursday, October 21, 2010
I ordered this book the day I read that Yiyun Li had won a McArthur Foundation genius grant and found myself immersed in a mind-bending trip back to the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1970s.
Given the place of China in the world today, it is an amazing glimpse into a corrupt and regimented world, a 1984 for the Asian brand of totalitarian rule. It depicts the deracination of culture where people are firmly rooted in tradition and even superstition. The only people truly at home in this world are the rootless vagrants, Old Hua and his wife, who return to their wandering ways after the unfortunate events in Muddy River narrated in the novel.
It is an ensemble cast of characters, though the main narrative thread is the relationship between Nini, a young handicapped woman, and Bashi, a dangerously amoral outsider. It is framed by the executions of two idealistic young women who automatically become counterrevolutionaries when they become disillusioned with Mao's revolution.
These are small characters in a small provincial town and yet they embody the epic sweep of the Cultural Revolution, a hypocritical leap forward that marked the end of any socialist pretenses in China. It shows simple people who have been deprived of their moral compass through the oppression of the Communist regime -- whether the cynical depravity of Old Kwen, entrusted to bury the executed Shan Gu, or the innocent treachery of Tong, a six-year-old whose biggest concern is the disappearance of his dog Ear.
Shan Gu, a model revolutionary during her teens, has her execution for counterrevolutionary activities brought forward so that her kidneys can be harvested for a well-connected official in the provincial capital. It would be hard to find a more horrifying metaphor for the exploitation of a helpless populace by a corrupt regime. Shan Gu's subsequent further posthumous mutilation before her burial completes the picture of moral bankruptcy.
By an odd coincidence, The Vagrants is the second book in a row for me featuring a deformed and crippled young woman in a prominent role. Like Mikkelina in Arnaldur Indridason's Silence of the Grave, Nini lacks the looks and charms of a nubile young woman, but that does not stop her womanly yearnings. But if women in general are helpless and vulnerable in the two societies portrayed in these novels, this is especially true of a crippled woman. In both cases, they are the survivors, however, and a testimony to human resiliency. The portayal of Nini's modest longings is almost unbearably poignant at times and makes her in some ways the true heroine of this story.
Yiyun Li's other published work is a collection of short stories, and the interweaving strands in this novel owe much to her skill in depicting these small self-contained narratives. We come to know Teacher Gu and his wife, Tong and his drunken father and long-suffering mother, the odd Bashi and the sympathetic Nini, the news announcer Kai and her husband Han and platonic lover Jialin. The trajectory set in motion by the execution of Shan Gu is clear in advance and yet told with exquisite care. The naive and foolish hopes of the young and the vain efforts of the mature to remain indifferent all become enmeshed in an oppressive and stifling environment without honor or justice.
Oddly enough, the least visible characters in the novel are the vagrants of the title, the Huas. The childless couple moved around restlessly, taking care of unwanted infant girls, until they settled for a time in Muddy River. It turns out to be a brief respite before they feel compelled to resume their vagrant life.
The novel depicts a life of simplicity and extreme poverty that nonetheless has its own dignity to the extent it can escape the ravages of regime. A hungry Nini scrapes the flour paste off of posters for nourishment and Teacher Gu squirrels away a precious Parker pen for decades.
It is a heartbreaking work and so relevant for our times. Material conditions have improved in China but the fundamental injustice, and presumably corruption, of the system remain intact. The recognition for Li's fiction, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize for imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo keep us from forgetting that fact.