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The greater the flood of news the faster we are carried along.  We have time to see only the surfaces of events before we are swept beyond them, especially if the events are in countries enormous and far away.

Uighurs attack Hans who attack Uighurs in China. China is making terrifying contributions to CO2 buildup but is working more than many to bring it down.  Tibet has always been a part of China; Tibet has always been its own nation.  And so we know ten thousand things but we know nothing below the surface.  Even if we go there and are toured around and make friends; even if we adopt unwanted Chinese infant girls ; even if we mourn the dead from Tianamen in 1989 or the impoverished poor protesting the fouling of their air, water and soil, we know not much.

vagrants.cgi To get below the surface at all we have to move from the wash of news and enter into history or even better, into fiction.  To know reality we have to enter into fiction.   YiYun Li’s recently published The Vagrants, about life in Muddy River, a fictional town in China in 1979, is a marvelous glass bottomed boat through which we can look into the life of the town and the lives of the people.  In 1979 Mao had died, the Gang of Four had been arrested and the Cultural Revolution was over.  The first possibilities of public, democratic expression were being felt in Beijing and around the country, but the outlines of who was in power and what was the correct line were far from clear. The news traveled slowly,  with travelers and interpretations of what was being said in the press and on the radio and who was saying it.  There was none of the speedy personal communications of the internet, cell-phones and texting which have aided and kept anonymous those who have spoken out recent years. Yet small groups of people breathed a different air and wanted to believe it was there to stay.

The central event of the book is the execution of Gu Shan, a young, female Red Guard “…at first a fanatic believer in Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution and later an adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation’s revolutionary zeal.”  Before she is executed for her counterrevolutionary acts she is taken to four public denunciations, the occasion for a public holiday of sorts. School children are walked to the stadium to witness. Perhaps they notice the blood stained rag around her neck through which the vocal cords had been severed — to avoid any embarrassment to the Party officials. Away from the crowds she will be taken to a snowy island for her execution, but not before her kidneys are extracted, en vivo. The official who is to receive them doesn’t want to be tainted with the ghosts of the dead.

Gu Shan’s mother, intent on giving her daughter a proper farewell with a public burning of her clothes, is drawn into a small band of younger people which shares Gu’s urge towards freedom, and means to use her death to celebrate her courage and advance their cause. Her father, a former teacher and intellectual, is appalled both by his daughter’s passion and by the use others want to make of her death. He begins to write long letters to his former wife, a militant communist from whom he separated before having children.

The plot line runs through the richest description imaginable, not only of the hardscrabble town, the one-room shacks with heated brick beds, the cold of the streets, the mud of approaching spring but of the people — from extremely poor, to well-off, public figures, each with their own character traits and opinions. Yiyun Li moves effortlessly between the various stories, all tied together by the death and their relation to it, and tied to each other by their positions in the town and their crossing paths.

Nini is a young adolescent girl, born with a birth defect, the result of her mother being kicked by Gu at the height of her militancy.

“Someone has put a curse on us through you, Nini, and that’s why we never get to have a boy in our family. But today, the one who has done this to us gets to see her final day. The spell is over now, and your father and I will have a son soon.”

Treated as the scullery maid and baby sitter by her parents Nini finds herself drawn to the warmth and kindness of an older boy, Bashi, who is similarly drawn to her and away from the borderline life he is living. In a world of rejection and sadness she manages to persevere, even as Bashi is sent to jail in the closing pages and she heads out of Muddy River with the elderly Huas, the title figures of the story.

“She would take care of the couple, when they were too old to work, with the money in her socks, Nini thought. There was no reason for her to linger in Muddy River, though she knew she would be back in seventeen years, after Bashi had served his sentence for molesting and kidnapping a young child [herself]. She had tried to visit him once, but the guards said only families and relatives were allowed. There was no point in making them understand she was his child bride; there was no point in explaining anything to anyone, the Huas’ included. The only thing to do was to count the days and years to come.”

Kai, a well known radio personality and voice for the status-quo, is another strong female figure in the story.  She, of all of them, changes the most. She walks away from her privileged life, picks up Gu’s cause and suffers a similar fate. Married to a high-ranking family she begins meeting with Jialin, an ailing but fervent rebel trying to rehabilitate Gu’s name. The group manages to have leaflets printed calling for a memorial and petition signing to rehabilitate her name. Stealthily the leaflets are taken door to door. Only the brave appear at the square where a large photograph of the young woman is propped below a statue of Chairman Mao; only the extremely brave, and a few foolish, sign the petition. Kai is one of the party which delivers it to the authorities — leading to disaster for her family, and death in the closing pages for herself.

“Under the policy of giving the harshest punishment to all antigovernment organizations and individuals, three hundred and eleven people who had signed the petition were tried as counterrevolutionaries… Upon reviewing the cases, the provincial officials pointed out that a warning to the masses would not be effective without a death sentence. Kill a chicken to frighten all the mischievous monkeys into silence, one top official urged in writing, and several others chimed in with their consent.”

For all the grimness of the story, both in the behavior of the people and the double execution, The Vagrants is not a labor to read. Li’s graceful sentences and attention to detail, so much of it unknown to us before reading, make us willing spectators of a great canvas, one we want to stand before many times and look again at a particular scene, or notice the description of clothing or food, or twenty minutes in the street.  We read of customs which are not ours but which, embedded in the sympathetically rendered poverty of the lives,   seem not simply exotic but a natural part of what we are seeing.

Li herself has a Tolstoyan sense of history — that life unfolds not at the hands of great men who make events but in those of the millions of people who participate, in millions of different ways.

“[Li] As a writer I am fascinated by small people in community, who are not always in the center of actions, yet who in the end, as onlookers, contribute perhaps as much to history as those who hold key roles. In other words, Hitler did not start his war by himself, nor did Chairman Mao start Cultural Revolution by himself. Those who participate are what I am interested in writing. And Muddy River, as a provincial town, seems a perfect place to investigate the people far from the center of the actions (Beijing, for instance).

[Q:] Yes, I was interested in that choice — showing the action in the provinces rather than in the capital, where events around the Democracy Wall must also have been very dramatic.

[Li] When you choose to write the center of the action — say, the movement in Beijing — it tends to become more political and historical, while my interest always stays with the people — the characters, how they live through certain events; how much their action (or inaction) define not only their own fates but other people’s fates too.”

Mark Pritchard: SF Metro

Li was born and raised in China, and was a teenager at the time of Tiananmen Square — China’s 9/11 she says.  She came to the U.S. to study immunology and found herself caught up in writing, first with short stories and now a fine novel being celebrated around the reading world.  The Vagrants is a grim story but told with unusual dispassion and fine strokes.  It isn’t to be missed.

More about Yiyun Li, here.