Friday, September 10, 2010

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li: A Review

By John Cheeran
People are the most dangerous animals in the world, says teacher Gu while recalling how his only daughter Shan was betrayed as a counter revolutionary by her boyfriend in the Chinese immigrant author Yiyun Li’s debut novel The Vagrants.
Living in a totalitarian state Gu cannot be blamed for losing faith in himself and those around him. Betrayals often come from the most intimate and beloved people in one’s life as the teacher realises. Gu, at the end of his tether, is still left guessing whether his first wife used him as an anticipatory bail if the revolution did not take off.
Between two executions Li tries to portray a picture of China coming to terms with the immediate aftermath of the end of Cultural Revolution in 1978.
The Vagrants, which won the Guardian’s First Book Award, promises a lot but fails to deliver in the end. The lack of a central character to build her story saps the energy from Li’s narrative.
You expect a certain kind of stories from a writer who has left behind a totalitarian state. It’s almost a habit now. In that context, much of what the US-based Li, 38, writes fits in with readers’ idea of a stifling atmosphere.
In Li’s China, God is Communist party. In Red Star school, young Tong is reminded of how much the Party cares for its children. “Everybody’s equally loved by the party, but when someone makes a mistake, just as when a child makes a mistake, the party will not let a single wrongdoer slip by.”
Not much of that situation has been changed, if you recall the kind of elaborate arrangements the Party made to prevent the Chinese converging on Tiananmen Square on the 20th anniversary of the suppression of the student protest last year. Till now, there has been no recrudescence of Tiananmen Square.
The Vagrants starts on a somber note. Li evocatively portrays the emotional trauma teacher Gu and his wife faces, preparing for the day of public denunciation and execution of their only daughter, Shan, condemned to death after being branded as a counter-revolutionary by the Party.
It is teacher Gu who shines through this bleak novel, despite his doubts and disappointments, putting counter revolutionaries such as Shan and Kai into the shade. Despite being a teacher revered by villagers, Gu, however, could not determine his daughter’s fortunes.
Shan, revolutionary-turned-counter-revolutionary, we watch only from a distance and get to know through the reminiscences of her parents.
The angst, in the aftermath of Shan’s execution, comes home to roost with Kai, the voice of the revolution. The big change and support that Kai and Jialin expected from Beijing never arrive and the protest fizzles out with another bullet.
In the end you agree with teacher Gu. The only way to live on, he had known most of his adulthood, was to focus on the small patch of life in front of one’s eyes.

Title: The Vagrants
Author: Yiyun Li
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: 7.99 pounds
Pages: 338

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