The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li
In The Vagrants, Yiyun Li centers us in Muddy River, a small, rural town in late ’70’s China. Muddy River is isolating, lonely, and neatly marked by crowded identical houses. The many struggles endured by the inhabitants of Muddy River are revealed as they all come together on one spring day to celebrate the execution of 28 year old counterrevolutionary Gu Shan. Over the course of the denunciation ceremonies and the following few days, we are introduced to Gu Shan’s parents, a radio announcer/government spokesperson with hidden wills of her own, a teenage sexual predator, a young girl ostracized for her “deformities”, and a small boy trying to make sense of it all. Gu Shan’s wrongful execution has a rippling effect on a population suffering under communism which mirrors the effect of the Democratic Wall Movement in nearby Beijing. But where there is rippling there is also backlash.
This book was a hard one to read. The relentlessly disturbing imagery (baby girls abandoned by the roadside, corpses raped and mutilated), not to mention the morally reprehensible motives of some of the characters, at times made it difficult to return to. But I did. And while it is ultimately an important comment on the nature, necessity, and effectiveness of resistance under totalitarianism, it’s one that’s been made before, and I’m afraid Li doesn’t add much to it. I’m not sure if it’s because the way that Li wrote her characters does not quite mesh with me, or if it’s because I was so turned off by some of the early scenes in the book that I did not allow myself to become invested in them, but invest in them I did not. Some of them I might buy as realistic, if one-dimensional…but others just plain bugged me, particularly Tong, the seven year old whose insights were a little more than I’m willing to give him credit for.
Without feeling a deeper connection to the people in this story, without better understanding the source of their inspirations, I’m left with little more than life under communism is incredibly oppressive and terrible and so is the devaluation of baby girls and coercion and dismemberment and resistance is probably futile but you should do it anyway because it’s right and all this awfulness can easily serve as metaphor for crumbling worldview…
And, well, I already knew all of that. Not a very bad book, but not one I’d recommend, either.