The Vagrants | Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li’s novel, The Vagrants , is both a book about politics—as novels about modern China tend to be—and yet, in a sense, about all those relationships and experiences that politics, no matter how pervasive and omnivorous, cannot draw into its grasp. In the novel’s opening scene we are shown the parents of a young woman sentenced to death for anti-government activity, and it would seem that the main theme of the book is dissent from the crudeness and harshness of a utopian and totalitarian system.
But, a few pages in, we meet a number of other characters, each with their own specific issues and an independent trajectory within the text, and we realize that we are in the presence of a writer working on a very large canvas, creating an unforgettably tender, though bleak, portrait of humanity.
The Vagrants: Fourth Estate, 340 pages, £12.99 (around Rs1,000)
The Vagrants is set in a fictional city called Muddy River in 1979, in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s ambitious cultural revolution. Among the book’s main characters are Teacher Gu and his wife, the beleaguered parents of the woman on death row; another old couple called the Huas, who make their living from scavenging and burying the dead; a small boy called Tong, who was brought up by his grandparents in the village and has only recently returned to his parents and to the city; the beautiful news announcer Kai, who is “the voice of the government” on radio and yet feels disturbed about her life; a young cripple called Nini, who is treated cruelly by her large family because of her disability; and Bashi, a young good-for-nothing guy whose only desire is to find a woman to sleep with. These are the vagrants—economic, political, spiritual—of the book’s title.
The depth and patience of Li’s characterization, and the political implications of many of the gestures of protest or pain she describes, actually work to conceal the enormous artistic control and balance of her narrative. Each character is not only given his or her own space, but is also involved in significant interactions with most of the others over the course of the novel. The story is structured as a series of meetings and reverberations, showing how people work on each other to create a sense of comfort, refuge, suffering or exclusion. The characters are persistently challenged by life and sometimes surprised by themselves.
At times they let a loved one down and are consumed by regret or self-pity, and at other times they offer support and moral sustenance to a person they barely know. Li’s skill with dialogue—an area in which most novelists manage no more than a pass mark—makes for encounters in which the arguments and passions of the protagonists resonate vividly in the reader’s mind.
Meeting point: The author juxtaposes the old and new faces of China. Kevin Lee / Bloomberg
Li, who was named one of the best American novelists under 35 by Granta magazine in 2007, writes a prose that derives its power from a balance between the political and the spiritual. “What is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive?” thinks Teacher Gu, whose disgust with people extends to his own wife and daughter, whom he trained to be independent, only for them to let him down by their wilfulness. “If you stay in line, you’ll never be in the wrong place,” counsels Tong’s mother, advocating a refusal to take risks when the boy wants to know what is right and what is wrong.
These are the tremors and agitations, beautifully expressive of the fluidity of life and the yearning and deceptions nurtured by human nature, conveyed on virtually every page of one of the truly great novels of our time.
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