Brilliant and illuminating, this astonishing debut novel by the award-winning writer Yiyun Li is set in China in the late 1970s, when Beijing was rocked by the Democratic Wall Movement, an anti-Communist groundswell designed to move China beyond the dark shadow of the Cultural Revolution toward a more enlightened and open society. In this powerful and beautiful story, we follow a group of people in a small town during this dramatic and harrowing time, the era that was a forebear of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, a bold spirit and a follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. Her distraught mother, determined to follow the custom of burning her only child's clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shan's father, Teacher Gu, who has already, in his heart and mind, buried his rebellious daughter, begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughter's death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.
In luminous prose, Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of these and other unforgettable characters, including a serious seven-year-old boy, Tong; a
crippled girl named Nini; the sinister idler Bashi; and Kai, a beautiful radio news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family. Life in a world of oppression and pain is portrayed through stories of resilience, sacrifice, perversion, courage, and belief. We read of delicate moments and acts of violence by mothers, sons, husbands, neighbors, wives, lovers, and more, as Gu Shan's execution spurs a brutal government reaction.
Writing with profound emotion, and in the superb tradition of fiction by such writers as Orhan Pamuk and J. M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li gives us a stunning novel that is at once a picture of life in a special part of the world during a historic period, a universal portrait of human frailty and courage, and a mesmerizing work of art.
Starred Review. Li's magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim novel centers on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China. Former Red Guard leader Shan Gu is scheduled to be executed after a denunciation ceremony presided over by Kai, the city's radio announcer. At the ceremony, Shan doesn't speak (her vocal chords have been severed), and before she's shot, her kidneys are extracted--by Kai's favor-currying husband--for transplant to a high regional official. After Shan's execution, Kwen, a local sadist, and Bashi, a 19-year-old with pedophile leanings, bury Shan, but not before further mutilating the body. While Shan's parents are bereft, others celebrate, including the family of 12-year-old Nini, born deformed after militant Shan kicked Nini's mother in her pregnant belly. Nini dreams of falling in love and--in the novel's intricate overlapping of fates--hooks up with Bashi, providing the one relatively positive moment in this panorama of cruelty and betrayal. Li records these events dispassionately and with such a magisterial sense of direction that the reader can't help being drawn into the novel, like a sleeper trapped in an anxiety dream. (Feb.)
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February 02, 2009
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Excerpt from The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
one The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket. A day of equality it was, or so it had occurred to Teacher Gu many times when he had pondered the date, the spring equinox, and again the thought came to him: Their daughter’s life would end on this day, when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned. A day later the sun would come closer to her and to the others on this side of the world, imperceptible perhaps to dull human eyes at ﬁrst, but birds and worms and trees and rivers would sense the change in the air, and they would make it their responsibility to manifest the changing of seasons. How many miles of river melting and how many trees of blossoms blooming would it take for the season to be called spring? But such naming must mean little to the rivers and ﬂowers, when they repeat their rhythms with faithfulness and indifference. The date set for his daughter to die was as arbitrary as her crime, determined by the court, of being an unrepentant counterrevolutionary; only the unwise would look for signiﬁcance in a random date. Teacher Gu willed his body to stay still and hoped his wife would soon realize that he was awake. She continued to cry. After a moment, he got out of bed and turned on the only light in the bedroom, an aging 10-watt bulb. A red plastic clothesline ran from one end of the bedroom to the other; the laundry his wife had hung up the night before was damp and cold, and the clothesline sagged from the weight. The ﬁre had died in the small stove in a corner of the room. Teacher Gu thought of adding coal to the stove himself, and then decided against it. His wife, on any other day, would be the one to revive the ﬁre. He would leave the stove for her to tend. From the clothesline he retrieved a handkerchief, white, with printed red Chinese characters–a slogan demanding absolute loyalty to the Communist Party from every citizen–and laid it on her pillow. “Everybody dies,” he said. Mrs. Gu pressed the handkerchief to her eyes. Soon the wet stains expanded, turning the slogan crimson. “Think of today as the day we pay everything off,” Teacher Gu said. “The whole debt.” “What debt? What do we owe?” his wife demanded, and he winced at the unfamiliar shrillness in her voice. “What are we owed?” He had no intention of arguing with her, nor had he answers to her questions. He quietly dressed and moved to the front room, leaving the bedroom door ajar. The front room, which served as kitchen and dining room, as well as their daughter Shan’s bedroom before her arrest, was half the size of the bedroom and cluttered with decades of accumulations. A few jars, once used annually to make Shan’s favorite pickles, sat empty and dusty on top of one another in a corner. Next to the jars was a cardboard box in which Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu kept their two hens, as much for companionship as for the few eggs they laid. Upon hearing Teacher Gu’s steps, the hens stirred, but he ignored them. He put on his old sheepskin coat, and before leaving the house, he tore a sheet bearing the date of the previous day off the calendar, a habit he had maintained for decades. Even in the unlit room, the date, March 21, 1979, and the small characters underneath,Spring Equinox,stood out. He tore the second sheet off too and squeezed the two thin squares of paper into a ball. He himself was breaking a ritual now, but there was no point in pretending that this was a day like any other. Teacher Gu walked to the public outhouse at the end of the alley. On normal days his wife would trail behind him. They were a couple of habit, their morning r