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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
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The Vagrants

by Yiyun Li

A River Runs Through It

A review by Nisi Shawl

In the wake of China's cultural Revolution, wrecked lives did not simply right themselves and continue on as before. The Vagrants, the first novel by awardwinning short-story author Yiyun Li, examines human flotsam caught in the backwater eddies of the fictional late-'70s provincial town of Muddy River. The book opens as the spring equinox dawns. Teacher Gu rises from bed reluctantly, anticipating his daughter's execution for counterrevolutionary thoughts. He tries to come to terms with the inevitability of her death, calling to mind a larger context: the rhythms of the natural world. The denunciation and execution of former Red Guard Gu Shan are to take place on a day of balanced dark and light; the day after, the sun will shine a little longer on those still living, a difference "imperceptible perhaps to dull human eyes at first, but birds and worms and trees and rivers would sense the change."

Merciless as nature, Li spares her readers not one telling detail: the bloodstained bandages covering the wounds where Gu Shan's vocal cords have been cut and her kidneys scavenged by a Communist Party official; the tiny shack furnished with one chair, a cot and a tree stump where a tubercular intellectual conspires to redeem that unjust death; the myriad silences accompanying a former government news announcer to her grave. Yet this meticulousness enriches us with beauties both wild and mundane. Willow buds swell with "the best green of the year -- clean, fresh, shining"; "white nameless flowers bloom all summer" in the meadows where female babies are abandoned to freeze in winter; a young girl feels "a small tickling sensation...somewhere in her body that she had not known existed." Li's stark narrative echoes the devastating purity of the folk sayings that grace its flow, less adornment than illustration. Searching for a missing receipt to prove he has paid for the bullet that will kill his daughter, Teacher Gu tells himself it is "taking a walk with a ghost." When Mrs. Hua, a street sweeper one step above beggary, recounts to her boss last night's dream of nonexistent grandchildren, he replies with an aphorism: "A dream is as real as a blossom in the mirror or a full moon in the river."

In a swirling panorama Li focuses closely on her characters, then pulls back to show the larger effects on Muddy River of Gu Shan's political rise and fall, then dives again into the minutiae of daily lives: a blue plastic rattle left behind when a baby is removed from his politically suspect mother, a cone of flour and water meant to paste up notices of Gu Shan's public execution and used instead to assuage the hunger of one of her victims. Caught up in a movement to rehabilitate the dead "counterrevolutionary," townspeople are imprisoned and tortured when the central government retaliates. They have nothing to cling to but one another. Mr. and Mrs. Hua, onetime itinerants and the most obvious of the book's vagrants, are swept with their newly adopted daughter away from their temporary mooring in the town; in their common cell, a sex criminal promises a confused manchild who denounced his neighbors that they will travel to hell together. Teacher Gu breaks curfew one evening and walks into the arms of those who will beat him senseless, "with the resolution to meet the water that would carry him away." Which is all, sometimes, that anyone can do.

Nisi Shawl's short-story collection Filter House (Aqueduct Press, 2008) was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008.

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