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The Vagrants (2009)

The Vagrants (2009)
3.82 of 5 Votes: 1
1400063132 (ISBN13: 9781400063130)
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The Vagrants (2009)
The Vagrants (2009)

About book: (This review was originally published on The Rumpus: I think of Beijing in 1998, I think of a worn-out train bound for a town fifty miles from the capital. Across from me sat a Chinese man in his late twenties who, for a while, would not meet my eyes. Only after the train began moving, the noise of the rails nearly deafening, did he lean forward across the little table that separated us and say, “English?”I nodded, grateful and relieved to have someone to talk to. When he asked why I was going to this town, which, by his reckoning, was not a good place for foreigners, I told him I was looking for a small hiking trail I’d heard about, hoping to get away from the chaos of the city for a day. He said it would be very hard to find, and offered to accompany me.A few minutes into our conversation, a uniformed man walked up and began talking to my new companion. From the tone of his voice, it sounded like an interrogation. The uniformed man kept gesturing to me angrily. My acquaintance shrank into himself, speaking quietly to the uniformed man. After the man left, I asked, “What was that about? Is everything okay?”He shook his head, “I cannot talk.” Then he looked out the window, and for the rest of the trip he did not speak to me or meet my eyes. When the train pulled into the station, he exited quickly, without saying goodbye, and I did not attempt to follow.I mention this occasion as a single example of the fear and secrecy I encountered during my three months traveling solo in China in 1998. This was the year of President Clinton’s famous visit to Tiananmen Square, a visit which, as a foreigner, I was allowed to witness, but which was so tightly controlled by the government that my Chinese acquaintances told me they dared not go. This was almost ten years after the massacre, almost twenty years after the fictional events described in Yiyun Li’s arresting debut novel, The Vagrants, which should be required reading for anyone interested in political fanaticism and state-sponsored tyranny.At the time of my visit, the official government line on Chairman Mao, who had decimated the country with his brutal Cultural Revolution decades before, was that he had been 70% right, 30% wrong. The giant portrait of Mao that hung over the entrance to the Forbidden City served as a reminder that his vision of revolution (or at least 70% of that vision) still resonated in the hearts and minds of the Communist government. But the problem with fanatical revolution is that it quarters no dissent. To be a counter-revolutionary in China in the 1970s, the era in which Li’s novel takes place, was to be an enemy of the people.The Vagrants captures in chilling detail the atmosphere of constant fear, uncertainty, and vigilance that made daily life in post-Mao China a terrifying tightrope walk. The precise date on which the novel begins is March 21, 1979. The place is Muddy River, a village beset by poverty, a place where, down every alley, one finds despair. If every story must have a reason for being told, a moment or necessity that sets it in motion, the catalyst for The Vagrants is a murder—specifically, the pending execution of 28-year-old Gu Shan, who has spent the past decade imprisoned for writing a letter to her boyfriend which questioned the government.Gu Shan’s great crime is that she has not reformed. Instead of recanting her opinions and using her time in prison to see the error of her counter-revolutionary ways, she kept a journal in which she was critical of the government. In the extravagantly censorial atmosphere of post-Mao China, a doubt uttered in private is fair grounds for execution.Her denunciation ceremony takes place amidst an atmosphere of excitement on the one hand, resignation on the other. Schoolchildren, public officials, and workers’ units take part in the spectacle, while those who disagree with the policy, for the most part, keep their silence. In this atmosphere, small acts take on hyper-significance. The condemned girl’s mother burns her daughter’s clothes in the street, an attempt to send her child off in the proper manner, only to be dragged away by authorities. Her actions bewilder Gu Shan’s father, a teacher who has come to lament his daughter’s education, an education which he believes led her astray. He regrets that the women in his life cannot be quiet and obedient; why must they insist on making waves?Forced to calculate, from one minute to the next, where their loyalties should lie, the people of Muddy River are trapped in a collective and endless Catch-22. The famous radio personality Kai, a former classmate of Gu Shan, who aims to protest the execution may end up a heroine or a prisoner, depending on the shifting political winds, while those who support the execution may yet end up losing jobs, homes, or political clout because of their choice. The people who stream into the city square to sign a petition questioning the execution may be signing away their lives. The source of The Vagrants’ great tension, and its power, is that at any moment any character may run into trouble of a fatal variety. No one is safe.In a description of a group of schoolboys playing on the river as the winter ice begins to thaw, Li eloquently captures the essential problem of the time and place about which she writes: “Sometimes one of them lost his balance and plunged into the river… The soaked boy dodged the ice drifts, scrambled onto the bank, and ran home, laughing too because this kind of failure did not bother him. The same thing could happen to anyone; the next day, he would be one of the winning boys, laughing at another boy falling in. It was a game.”Perhaps one of the most arresting features of this book is that there are very few characters for whom the reader is allowed to feel a lingering sympathy. Just as we begin to cast our lot in with the martyr, Gu Shan, whose prolonged and extraordinarily painful death is portrayed in all its savage butchery, we learn that she is not innocent. At the age of 15, flush with the zeal of Communism, Gu Shan turned against her own parents and the elders of her village, whom she publicly beat and humiliated. One of the women she beat was eight months pregnant; her child, Nini, was born with terrible deformities.If Gu Shan is a ghost on the page, condemned to death from the moment we know her name, twelve-year-old Nini is very alive. Despised and abused by her own parents, Nini finds some hope when she is befriended by Bashi, a young man considered by many to be the town idiot, whose driving desire is to see a woman’s unclothed body. Because women his own age will not have him, and even young girls mock him, he turns to the prepubescent, physically deformed Nini as an answer to his loneliness. It is testament to the unbearable misery of Nini’s life that one finds oneself rooting for the underhanded and selfish Bashi, hoping that Nini will go live with him—loss of sexual innocence seems a small price to pay for a full stomach, a warm bed, and protection from the cruelties of her own parents. Bashi offers Nini something that until then has been almost entirely lacking in her life: acceptance and affection. But even Nini cannot be entirely trusted to hold our sympathies; the one couple who has been kind to her all her life eventually becomes the subject of her resentment, and we hold our breath, wondering how she might punish them.Yiyun LiYiyun LiThe vagrants of the novel’s title turn out to be Mr. and Mrs. Hua, an elderly, childless couple who spent their earlier years taking in abandoned girls, only to be forced, ultimately, to give up all of their adoptive daughters. Late in the book, Mrs. Hua considers “giving up their home and going back to the vagrant life. They could visit their daughters, the married ones and the ones who’d been taken away from them, before they took their final exit from the world.”In a world where one prospers or fails, lives or dies, according rules over which one has absolutely no control, this “final exit” is the only sure end of suffering. At one point, the radio announcer, Kai, remembers something her father once told her: “Life is a war, and one rests only when death comes to fetch him.” These words ring true throughout The Vagrants, which offers a terrifying glimpse into the reality of a deeply censored society, a place where one’s neighbors cannot be trusted, and where the most dangerous thing a person can do is speak his or her mind.I read this book with a sense of horror, in part because I know that, though the characters are fictional, the world it portrays is a real one. The man who hired me to go to China in 1998 had, as a child, lost his own parents to the Cultural Revolution. He had seen his mother murdered, her beloved personal library burned. He had survived in part because of the kindness of an older woman who saved a few books for him, which he read and reread in hiding. We spent a lot of time together, and, on a couple of occasions, he opened up to me about his childhood, his mother. But for the most part, he kept his silence. “Is not good to talk about these things,” he said. “Too much sadness.”Sadness suffuses every page of Yiyun Li’s novel. It is this relentless sadness, the refusal to buy into the contemporary literary religion of redemption, that makes The Vagrants a brave and important book.

When a pebble is thrown into a lake, rings start spreading further and further away from the spot where the pebble penetrated the water. So it is with humans. Our actions influence the people around us and spread in wider and wider circles. But with humans, it’s the relations between people that determines how the rings spread and these relations are not always easy to see. Sometimes people secretly know each other – or used to know each other. And sometimes, something is done to a person that causes ripples, rings and shock waves through a much larger group of persons than expected.This is what The Vagrants is about. It takes place in China in 1979 after the Culture Revolution in a very short amount of time. Gu Shan is a young woman, 28 years old, and she is the pebble. This novel is about her death and the consequences of it. We don’t really get to know Gu Shan all that well – and what we do get to know, isn’t all that sympathetic. We learn about her through the people influenced by her death – people who knew her, was influenced by her actions, who know her parents – or who see her as a symbol for the resistance against the Communist Party.Her parents, Teacher Gu and his wife, doesn’t know how to handle this. In some ways, Teacher Gu just wants to forget and move on. It’s better to stay blind than to see, he thinks. But not everyone can forget. Some people trust in the security of masses and wants to do something to right what they see as an injustice.This is a novel that makes you sad. It makes you sad inside to read about how people treat each other, treat their children and what they do to animals. Maybe this is an expression of how an entire people was desensitized and lost their inner sense of right and wrong by the Communist Party’s various revolutions, propagandas and more. I have a hard time with people caring so little about their children that they don’t even take the time to name them but just call them Little Fourth, Little Fifth and Little Sixth. Of course, these were just girls so why should they name them? Waste of time, I guess.This novel was full of stories like this. Stories about people hurting and suffering and not having the capacities to take care of each other because life is just so hard and all your focus is directed at survival. Putting food on the table. Staying out of trouble. But even though you do everything right, the actions of others can get you into trouble. The authorities doesn’t always fact check all that much before they start asking questions – in a rather persuasive way. And if your name is connected with a counterrevolutionary, trouble is coming and it’s knocking on your door late at night.But I’m getting ahead of myself. The characters in this book are so well-written. They all have flaws, they all make wrong decisions, they all suffer the consequences. I think my favorite characters were Tong and Nini because to me, they symbolize the children of China. Nini is a crippled girl. She lives with her parents and 5 sisters and is basically their maid. Since she’s handicapped, there’s no point wasting time on getting her an education – or a husband, for that matter. She has to take care of her sisters, get coal to keep the family warm, make dinner and more. She constantly has to take care of her baby sister, Little Sixth, but taking care of her is rather easy – you just tie her to the bed so she doesn’t fall off and then leave her to herself.Even though Tong is a boy, his parents were not thrilled to have him. So at 1 month old, he was shipped off to his grand parents in his country. His parents bring him back when he’s 6 years old, together with his dog. Both he and his dog have a hard time adjusting to life in the city with people they hardly know. There was this one place in the novel where Yuyun Li writes about how Tong had to hit his dog to teach it not to bark all the time and it just made me so sad for this boy and his dog: “In his previous life in the village, Ear had not been trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive. Had it not been for Tong’s parents and the neighbor’s threats to sell Ear to a restaurant, Tong would never have had the heart to slap the dog when they first arrived. A city was an unforgiving place, or so it seemed to Tong, as even the smallest mistake could become a grave offense.” (p. 12-13). And these few lines in the beginning of the book not only sums up Tong’s and Ear’s lives, they sum up the lives of every person in China at that point in history.I haven’t even really begun to fully explores all these persons and their lives and how it all connect. Teacher Gu and his wife, Old Hua and his wife, Bashi, Kai and her husband Han and his parents, Jialin, Kwen … Everyone. Everyone has a story to tell in this book. Everyone has a story to suffer.I recently read an article exploring the current status of the one-child policy in China. Lots of people lived lives like Tong’s – growing up for a short or long while with their grandparents because their parents couldn’t fit raising a child in with working. This is how people live. And that’s the point of this book. It’s a novel but it’s based on real people. This is how life in China was – and still is, in some ways. And besides this being a wonderful novel, it should be read because of how it shows China and her people.
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I read "The Vagrants" for a class on women's issues as seen through literature and film. Had I not needed to read it in order to participate in class discussion, I probably would have stopped reading it at some point. "The Vagrants" while beautifully well written, is a very difficult read. The story takes place in China right after the end of the Cultural Revolution and shows the interactions among an array of characters as they witness and react to a Denunciation Hearing just before a young woman is being hung for counterrevolutionary activities. The people in the town for the most part, are desperately poor, and every day is a fight for survival. Several characters in the story are privileged members of the Communist Party showing that Orwell was correct in predicting that some pigs would be more equal. After getting to know all the characters, the story takes on a chilling affect and is hard to put down. This book is not for the weak of heart. Read it at your own risk.
Lynn Sloan
The second book from Li, her first novel, opens with a quote from Auden, “. . .they were small/And could not hope for help and no help came.” An apt introduction to the sprawling novel set in a contemporary, fictional city in China, Muddy River, that opens on March 21, 1979, on the morning when the daughter of Teacher Gu and his wife will be executed. Their daughter will be killed for her revolutionary activities. What happens to her body, what happens after her death—the grief of her mother, the stoicism of her father—the actions of those who knew her and those you didn’t weave together in this compelling novel. Individuals from different classes, the most elevated—a woman newsreader who announces the execution, and then becomes a revolutionary herself—to the “vagrants,” the itinerant, illiterate street sweepers who take in abandoned babies, neighbors, are all a part of this sweeping tale. The most bitter revelations—and this book is filled with revelations about how the Chinese think—are the several children who react in opposite ways to the execution and what follows. Children seem to be both indispensible in that their purpose is to fulfill their parents’ purposes and to care for them in old age, and completely dispensable, in that they are tossed aside when they become a problem for their parents. An absorbing book.
Jennifer (aka EM)
Tough read. Almost impossible to rate. Did I (3) like or (4) really like this novel? No. I endured it. Do I think it (5) amazing? Yes, yes ... that I do.It is, quite possibly, the most brutal, dispiriting, sad, anger-provoking, depressing novel I've ever read. I feel as though this novel is trying to teach me so many things, but my lack of knowledge of China's history, specifically China's Cultural Revolution, is hampering me from understanding it fully. That's at the thematic, symbolic level. And possibly even at the plot level - I am still confused about Gu Shan's crime and political position. (But I suspect it almost doesn't matter.)Where I'm going now, in my head, is to why I read. This novel--or more precisely, trying to review this novel--makes me ask myself why I read. One of the reasons I read is to understand worlds that I will never experience first-hand, or to experience worlds in which I will never live.That's why speculative and historical fiction are of such interest to me.The thing about this novel is, there's nothing speculative about it. 1984 was speculative. This is real-world 1984.When fiction takes one to very dark places, places of horror and brutality--like China circa 1973 or Nazi Germany circa 1940--the depth to which one can experience that world becomes a marker of the quality of the fiction, I think. Do you stick with it - bear it, like the torture that it is (and what the hell does that say about me, anyway?)? How often must you surface to breathe the calming and soul-restoring fresh air of the knowledge that "it's just a book"?With historical versus speculative fiction, "it's just a book" doesn't usually work, because immediately after that thought comes "but this really happened to real people." And then, empathy floods. I kept trying "it's just a book" here - and then Yiyun Li dragged me back under(view spoiler)[ with the sharp, stabbing pain of baby girls being thrown out like yesterday's chamber-pot contents; vocal cords being severed and kidneys removed while the political prisoner was alive; the gruesome death of a 6-yr-old's pet dog and his later betrayal of his father (link? yes, of course); children being burned in a house fire, more ... so much more (hide spoiler)]
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