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The Vagrants

by Yiyun Li (Random House, 2009)

Westerners in general and Americans in particular come to fiction about modern China outfitted, with filters that tend to explain everything "bad" or in any way unfortunate as, in one way or another, the consequence of Communist Party rule. To be sure, these prejudices harmonize with such Chinese movies (or at any rate movies made by Chinese-born filmmakers) as Farewell, My Concubine and Lust, Caution. While these films are not misleading about China, they tend to efface the sincerity of China's search for an indigenous modernity, for a genuinely Chinese approach to education and industry. It is incorrect, for example, to see the Communist Party's rejection of bourgeois and Imperial leftovers as an attack on the heart of Chinese civilization. As Yiyun Li's The Vagrants demonstrates on every page, the China of 1979 — three years after the death of Mao — was very much a traditional China that venerable ancestors would have recognized — and that the ghosts of peasants might have regretted missing.

China retains one of the world's few avowedly Communist governments, but to anyone with the patience to look, the regime becomes more Chinese and less ideological every year. Income inequality and systematic corruption, two evils that the young Mao was determined to choke out, flourish as vigorously as ever. The Party chiefs in their Western suits and sharp ties visibly scramble to adapt the hallmarks of Imperial and Republican legitimacy to the People's faηades. Yiyun Li takes us back to a period of far more discreet compromises and accommodations, to the 1979 of the Democracy Wall, when Western observers began to wonder if China might be heading down the path that would be taken, a decade later, by the members of the Soviet bloc. In the event, as we know, it was not. Prioritizing the appearance of civil stability, Beijing denatured everything genuinely Communist about Mao's reforms. It held on to his power, however, with a firmer, more agile, grasp.

Yiyun Li's The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a fictional small city in northeastern China that is entirely the creation of the Communist Party regime.

The twenty-year-old city, a development planned to industrialize the rural area, relied on its many small factories to provide jobs and commodities for the residents. The housing was equally planned out, and apart from a few buildings of four or five stories around the city square, and a main street with a department store, a cinema, two marketplaces, and many small shops, the rest of the town was partitioned into twenty big blocks that in turn were divided into nine smaller blocks, each of which consisted of four rows of eight connected, one-storied houses.

Muddy River is no socialist utopia, however. The inhabitants of the new town have brought with them as much of traditional China as they can — as much as the central government cannot forbid. And how much could be forbidden, after all, by a central government that is itself composed of Chinese men and women? Ms Li takes pains to blur the lines that separate traditional China from its would-be replacement, and, in doing so, she muffles the antagonism between them. In the China of The Vagrants, the Communist Party is simply the latest in a long line of idiosyncratic dynasties, its reforming fervor cooling by the day into determined self-preservation.

The narrative is bracketed by two state executions of "counterrevolutionaries," both women. We hear a lot about the first, and we get to know the second rather well. But neither killing, I expect, is likely to excite romantic indignation in readers of this very fine novel. Our pity for both convicts cannot stretch, at least within the Ms Li's framework, to the conclusion that terrible injustice has been wrought. Both convicts are culpable not so much of offending the self-regard of a paternalistic state as triggering its bottomless anxieties about civil unrest. Ms Li does not represent the Chinese state in Western terms, as a nightmarishly omnipotent machine capable of grinding down all opposition. It's more the Wizard of Oz, persuasively arguing that, even if it is just a little old man behind a curtain, life will be better if everyone does what it says.

Whatever we think of Communist Party China before picking up the novel, Ms Li quickly reduces us to a risk-averse complacency. Most of us get up every morning and proceed about our business without stopping to think that the world is harsh and cruel and terribly unfair. This isn't mindlessness, but self-protection. We may be leading lives that cause others to cry out in pity, but we will have inured ourselves to the hardships that furnish our days. Most days are simply to be survived.

Ms Li's great gift is to reduce to seconds the time that it takes to get used to everyday pain and loss. Her grasp of her characters' conscious lives is altogether untroubled by editorializing distractions. This is particularly noticeable in the introductory passages, a type of passage that serves many authors as a platform on which to exhibit their own worldviews, ironically expressed as more or less serious disagreements with their characters. Ms Li's introductions, in contrast, take her characters' self-regard on faith. As they conduct the routines of self-estimation right in front of us, we may take a while to appreciate the novelist's subtle but decided deviation from narrative convention. In the following passage, for example, we're getting to know Tong, a boy who has grown up in his grandparents' village in the country and who has come to live with his parents now that it's time for elementary school.

Tong went quietly to the front room now. Without turning on the light, he found his toothbrush with a tiny squeeze of toothpaste on it, and a basin filled with water by the nightstand — Tong's mother never forgot to prepare for his morning wash the night before, and it was these small things that made Tong understand her love, even though she was more like a kind stranger to him. He rinsed his mouth with a quick gurgle and smeared the toothpaste on the outside of the cup to reassure his mother; with one finger, he dabbed some water on his forehead and on both cheeks, the amount of washing he would allow himself.

Tong was not used to the way his parents lived. At his grandparents' village, the peasants did not waste their money on strange-tasting toothpaste or fragrant soap. "What's the point of washing one's face and looking pretty?" his grandfather had often said when he told tales of ancient legends. "Live for thirty years in the wind and the dust and the rain and the snow without washing your face and you will grow up into a real man." Tong's parents laughed at such talk. It seemed an urgent matter for Tong's mother that he take up the look and manner of a town boy, but despite her effort to bathe him often and dress him in the best clothes they could afford, even the younger children in the neighborhood could tell form Tong's village accent that he did not belong. Tong held no grudge against his parents, and he did not tell them about the incidents when he was made a clown at school. Turnip Head, the boys called him, and sometimes Garlic Mouth, or Village Bun.

What kind of a boy is Tong? We have been told no more about him than we need to know in order to get him dressed and out of the house on a cold morning. We will learn more, not so much from watching Tong see and do more as from attending to his registration of the world around him, always with reference to his own place within it. Whatever the author knows about her characters, she shares only what they know themselves, supplementing this, sparingly, with the observations of other characters.

Tong's equanimity is at any rate settled. He begins as a character who is simply living his life from day to day. So does the far more put-upon Nini, a twelve year-old girl who was born with birth defects caused by trauma the trauma of physical violence, suffered by her pregnant mother during the Cultural Revolution. Nini is conscious of the wretchedness of her life, but she is fatalistic about it as well. She is also a highly-motivated opportunist, always ready to exploit the freedom from adult supervision that she would not have if she were a marriageable daughter. She dreams of being adopted by Teacher Gu and his wife, who have been feeding her a special breakfast every morning for time out of mind, but this is not because they are lovely altruists. Their generosity is an effort to atone for their daughter's barbarous behavior: for it was Gu Shan who kicked Nini's mother. Consumed by the Revolution, Shan eventually ran afoul of party orthodoxy, and this only made her more intransigent. So recklessly outspoken has she remained even in prison that appeals for mercy have gone unheeded, and today, the day on which The Vagrants opens, Shan is to be executed, after a series of "denunciation ceremonies." At no point do we enter Shan's consciousness, and this opacity only renders more poignant the futility and anguish suffered by her parents.

Ms Li's technique of unspooling her characters, gently additive and with few surprises, imbues them with a solidity that's unusual in group portraits of disparate people. Teacher Gu is a remarkable achievement very much to the extent that he is not the hero, or at least the long-suffering good father, that we might take him to be at the start. Here he is, confronted by a banner denouncing his daughter:

Teacher Gu had long ago ceased to understand the person bearing that name. He and his wife had been timid, law-abiding citizens all their lives.

True, but not the whole story. Long ago, Teacher Gu was married to a mathematics professor with whom he was deeply in love; she divorced him in order to make her way within the Party.

Teacher Gu's first marriage had lasted three years, and what he remembered, afterward, was many of their intellectual talks. Even on their honeymoon they had spent more time reading and discussing Kant than enjoying the beach resort. Early in his second marriage, he would sometimes watch his young wife asleep at night and hope that she would eventually offer more than her physical beauty, that he would be able to share his intellectual life with her — he was then thirty-two, still too young to understand how limitless men's desires were, or the absurdity of such greed.

When he had finally come to terms with what he could expect from his young wife, he did not love her less. He felt more responsible for her, not only as a husband and a man, but also as a parent and educator....

As we read this, we may well imagine that Yiyun Li is telling us about Teacher Gu; but it is Teacher Gu whose thoughts we are reading, whose self-image has been propped up for us. A third image, from late in the novel:

Teacher Gu shook his head. As an adult, he had never sat at a table with someone of his neighbor's status, a worker, a less educated member of the all-powerful proletarian class. His only similar memory was from when he had visited a servant's home as a small boy — her husband was a carpenter who had lost the four fingers of his right hand in an accident, and Teacher Gu remembered staring at the stumps when the man poured tea for him. The smell from the man's body was different from the men he had known, masters of literature and teachers of the highest reputation.

The dangerous level to which Teacher Gu has carried his self-respect may well, we feel have colored his daughter's rashness, determining her to be open about the sense of superiority that he felt obliged to keep secret but certainly never stopped feeling.

In Bashi, the oldest of the novel's three juveniles, Ms Li has created a character so intriguing that we forget the bleakness of Muddy River whenever he occupies the page, with what I can only, oxymoronically, call a colorful bleakness all his own. The color comes from the accidental privilege of his birth, as the son of a downed Korean War pilot. Raised by his grandmother in relative comfort, Bashi, now nineteen and an odd loner, has been rejected by every girl in town (and by many fathers as well), and when Nini responds to his friendly advances, which are only half as creepy as you might think, he responds with as genuine an affection as he can muster. The fact that he is in love dawns on him with a troubling puzzlement.

Bashi was in love, and it perplexed him. The desire to be with Nini for every minute of his life seemed not to come from between his legs but from elsewhere in his body, for which he had no experience or explanation. He thought hard and the only similar experience had been when he was three, not too long after his mother had left him with his grandmother: Winter that year had been particularly harsh in Muddy River, and ever morning they would wake up to frozen towels on the washstand, even though his grandmother had not spared one penny on coal. Every day they slipped into bed together straight after dinner, and often in the middle of the night Bashi would wake up with icy cold feet. He would whimper, and his grandmother, still dreaming, would grab his little feet and hold them against her bosom, not one layer of nightclothes in between. The soft warmth made Bashi shiver with inexplicable fear and excitement, and he would lie awake, wiggling one toe and then another, imagining the toes in their adventure until he fell asleep.

Ms Li's technique for the display of character makes for a piteous outcome, for when Bashi is outsmarted by events we are almost as rudely surprised by his loss of autonomy as he is.

The fifth principal character is Kai, a gifted-enough singer and actress who, thanks to an advantageous marriage to a Party scion, is a prominent announcer on local radio. The shame of marrying without love might strike the casual reader as a mark against the Party, but that's to forget that smart girls have been wagering more than they understood ever since they gained the independence to make their own choices.

Kai walked on without replying. She had always convinced herself that the decision to marry was not much different from serving a meal to a tableful of guests, with different people to consider: her parents' elation at being taken more seriously by those who had previously treated them with little respect, the futures of her two younger siblings — a brother whom Han had arranged to send to Teachers College in the provincial capital, and a sister who had been delighted to be courted as the relative of an important figure in the government. The heroines Kai had once played onstage had all given up their lives for higher callings, but it was not for a grand dream that she had decided to marry Han, but for a life with comfort and convenience.

Because social inequalities aren't supposed to exist in this China, we may fancy that Kai has married Han in order to escape the leveling oppression of ordinary Chinese life. But there is nothing in Kai's profile to distinguish her from the Charlotte Lucases of Western fiction — nothing, that is, except her fondness for a tubercular underground activist. And in this Kai resembles no one so much as Emma Bovary. Note that the construction, "she had always convinced herself" is meant as a statement of fact, a summary of Kai's efforts to rationalize the presence of a contract in the place where love ought to be found. It is not an ironic signaling of Kai's foolishness. Girls take great risks when they marry for convenience, but they do not invariably come to grief. And to claim that Kai's utterly imprudent contact with agitators compensates for the dissatisfactions of her marriage is to be as crudely mechanical as the Cultural Revolution was crudely anti-intellectual.

Something almost unspeakable happens near the beginning of The Vagrants, and it lurks in the background of the novel's streams of consciousness for more than half the novel's length. At first, it is a secret, implied only by a horribly mutilated body, which Bashi actually sees but about which he says nothing. Word of the horror seems to drift down from higher circles, close to Kai's in-laws — who presently have reason to worry. When they reach the underground, the rumors feed an outrage that culminates in an unauthorized demonstration against "our corrupt system." Later, we will be told, eight hundred eighty five inhabitants of Muddy River have been expelled from their work units, whether they actually attended the demonstration or were accused of doing so in the flurry of score-settling that accompanies the clamp-down. The demonstration and its aftermath form the climax of the novel, framed as one of those equivocal moments of history that have seemed, so often in China, capable of tipping the country into a new direction, only to reinforce the status quo once officials spring to protect their own precarious positions.

Han did not wait for the carpenters to finish their work before setting out for the provincial capital that afternoon. A special liaison for the mayor, Han explained when he returned from his parents' flat; the mayor and Han's parents wanted him to be at the capital to gather firsthand information about how Beijing was reacting to the democratic wall before they could make a decision about the leaflets. He did not know how long he would have to be there, Han said, his spirit unusually low. Kai imagined that he had been warned not to reveal anything to her, but when she pressed him for details, he admitted that the situation was difficult for everyone in the administration, as the central government in Beijing did not have a clear attitude toward the democratic wall. Would it mean that some change could be introduced in national policies? Kai asked. That would be the end of his career, Han answered. He looked despondent. A boy put into a man's position by his parents. Kai looked at him almost with sympathy. She touched his cheek with her palm, but even before she could find some empty words to comfort him, Han grabbed her hand, and asked her if she would still love him if he lost the game.

The ensuing reversals would pelt down with something of the bitter irony of Tosca, if Ms Li were not so preternaturally dry-eyed. The Vagrants, we can hope, will one day take its rightful place among the ancient legends of China. (April 2009)

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