In 1979, when Yiyun Li was six years old, a group of Chinese human rights activists posted nineteen articles on a brick wall in Tiananmen Square. No one knew how the Communist Party would respond. The Cultural Revolution had recently ended, and the constitution guaranteed freedom of speech—but only for members of the party. Everyone else remained silent or, better yet, became invisible.
In her debut novel, The Vagrants, Li, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the pen/Hemingway Award, returns to the story of China in the spring of ’79. She sets her tale amid the semi-urban sprawl of a place called Muddy River, which is modeled on her husband’s hometown. The real town’s name has since been changed to White Mountain, because, as Li said in an interview, the name Muddy River is so ugly. Indeed, China’s effort to remake its repressive political past—to whitewash itself—is a theme that animates the novel.
As the title implies, most of Li’s heroes and heroines are broken creatures and marginalized misfits. Not all are lucky enough to escape the regime’s ever-vigilant eye, however. The story twists around Kai, a successful young propagandist, and Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu, who are the parents of Kai’s old friend the political prisoner Gu Shan. The Gus, who have survived government abuse, are thrust into the klieg lights due to the sudden, sensational death of Shan, a political martyr. Kai, a popular newscaster whose honeyed voice is broadcast over Muddy River’s PA systems and radios, has risen to the pinnacle of local party politics (she owns one of the town’s three TV sets). Faced with the damning prospect of being a cog in the government’s killing machine, Kai dreams of using her only weapon—her voice—to fight for China’s nascent democratic movement: “A martyr’s blood, Kai had once sung on stage as a young woman, would nurture the azaleas blooming in the spring, their petals red as the color of the revolution.” The revolution is dying, and it is up to Kai to redefine the terms of martyrdom as counterrevolution. As a voice of authority in Muddy River, Kai has legitimized political crimes and endorsed executions. Now, she must use that authority to incite an uprising against the government she has helped to build.
Outsiders are often the best storytellers, and Li’s vagrants are no exception, narrating the death throes of totalitarianism. For her characters, paradoxically, powerlessness means freedom. Outside the strictures of work groups and party politics, they are free to move, to observe, and to speak without the threat of being listened to. Eking out brutal existences in Muddy River are Nini, a misshapen twelve-year-old urchin; Old Hua and Mrs. Hua, street cleaners who collect abandoned baby girls; Bashi, a horny village idiot; Old Kwen, a dyspeptic necrophiliac; and Tong, an ambitious country boy eager to make his mark in the Young Pioneers. Through their smaller stories and the choices they are forced to make, they contribute to the life-altering dramas of Kai and the Gus.
Rather than observing her characters, Li allows them to observe the world. As Tong watches a feral cat watching chickens in the market, an old woman watches him. She accuses him of trying to steal her birds: “Don’t think I didn’t hear that little abacus clicking in your belly when you looked at my chickens.” Often, Li’s characters experience the same scene or image—a woman’s vocal cords being cut, the careful calligraphy of an execution order—from slightly different angles. The banality of repeated injustices renders them the more horrific. Li captures this disconcerting truth in spare, simple observations: A condemned prisoner’s kidneys are removed while she is alive, as a gift for a political leader in need of a transplant. Nini would rather be molested than go home to parents who hardly feed her. Out of pity, the Huas offer her paste, which, at least, fills her stomach. Through the accretion and repetition of such details, Li evokes Muddy River’s refrain of collective despair, which functions as a Greek chorus of sorts: one that hears and sees rather than sings its suffering. Overtly, the novel’s grand political themes drive much of Li’s novel. Yet the more intimate moments elicit her best prose. Love, sex, loneliness, and ambition—her depiction of these competing desires renders Muddy River’s citizens immediate and human.
Throughout The Vagrants, there are echoes of Li’s own political and personal dilemmas. To do the right thing with her vocal talent, Kai must choose between comfort and losing her life, much as Li chose to leave China for America in 1996. Teacher Gu, a quiet scholar who had to renounce his intellect in order to survive, tries to live in silence, until—like Li’s grandfather who was educated in Western philosophy before the Communist revolution began—his reserve crumbles, and he rants to the world about the failures of Communism, not caring who hears. No political system answers the novel’s central question: How does one live an authentic life? But in a letter that only a government censor will read, Teacher Gu provides one response to the dilemma Li poses: “We become prisoners of our own beliefs, with no one free to escape such a fate, and this, my dearest friend, is the only democracy offered by the world.”
Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of a book of poems, Wideawake Field (2007), and a forthcoming nonfiction book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (both Farrar, Straus & Giroux).