The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

28/03/09, Time Magazine Asia

In March 1979, in the provincial backwater of a town called Muddy River in China, the twenty-eight-year-old counterrevolutionary, Gu Shan, is executed, after ten years of imprisonment, for publicly losing her faith in communism. At the denunciation ceremony, which the entire town is obliged to attend, it becomes clear that her vocal cords have been severed so that she cannot cry out counterrevolutionary slogans. Like a stone cast in water, the ripples of this execution spread out wide and The Vagrants, Yiyun Li’s first novel after her extravagantly praised and miraculously poised Guardian-prize-winning debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, anatomises with chilling precision yet unbounded humanity all the lives in Muddy River touched by Shan’s death.

Chief among these are Shan’s parents, Mrs. Gu, angry and devastated by her loss, and Teacher Gu, bewildered by the nature and personality of the child he has fathered and retreating further into the safe, arid haven of his intellectual mind to cope with his daughter’s death. There are less obvious people the death marks: Bashi, the town’s ne’er-do-well idiot; Tong, the sweet seven-year-old boy who has been brought back to Muddy River by his parents after having been raised by his grandmother in a remote village; Nini, a deformed girl, oldest of six daughters, who is nothing more than an unpaid, unloved servant to her family. Then there is the beautiful, honey-voiced Kai, public announcer in the government radio that spews out government propaganda continuously, married to Han, a man on the make in the provincial governmental apparatus, with dreams of more power and influence.

As Li reveals the lines of connection, some hidden, some potential, some accidental, between these lives, and gives each of them vast, rich interiorities, news of an incipient democratic wind blowing through Beijing trickles down to Muddy River. More shocking news is revealed to the reader: just before her murder, Shan’s kidneys had been harvested for an influential Communist Party official who needed them. As a fledgling protest snowballs haltingly and furtively in Muddy River, the democratic movement in Beijing is suppressed and, with it, the last hopes of the protest in Muddy River; by early May 1979, the rebellion is routed brutally.

Based on a true story, The Vagrants is a bleak, angry, unredemptive masterpiece, written without a shred of sentimentality, its anger a cold, immensely controlled fury rather than a shrill, messy rage. The surface of its unshowy, glitchless prose disguises an enormous achievement for the realist political novel while her relentless calibration of the cost paid by the innocent to sustain one of the most dehumanising and brutal of socio-political orders marks it as a milestone in the literature of oppressed, extinguished lives.