Li,Yiyun. The Vagrants. New York: Random House, 2009.
In Muddy River, a small city in China, in 1979, everyone has lost daughters. In the midst of winter, the corpses of abandoned infant girls are a common find along the banks of the river. The grief and pain of the parents must remain unspoken.
One character says, “A child losing her parents becomes an orphan, a woman losing her husband a widow, but there was not a term for the lesser parents that those who had lost their children became. Once parents, they would remain parents for the rest of their lives.”
The Vagrants opens on the day of a young woman’s execution, an event that reminds the people of Muddy River how much parents have had to endure. Death is nothing new. But this death will touch off a line of gunpowder that singes the entire city and its cast of broken people.
The victim is Gu Shan, a 28-year-old counterrevolutionary. Once a passionate Red Guard who, at 14, kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach, Shan is to be executed for writing a prison journal that expressed anti-communist sentiments.
Teacher and Mrs. Gu, Shan’s parents, just want to avoid trouble. They are intellectuals in a world where intelligence has brought only suffering. They struggle to repay and forgive their daughter’s failings.
Nini was born crippled as a result of the injuries dealt to her mother by Shan. Unwanted, she dreams of being truly loved, but she knows people will always let her down. She once received help and compassion from the Gus, but after Shan’s death, she is no longer welcome at their house.
Mr. and Mrs. Hua are former wanderers, now a street cleaner and a rubbish collector. They are known throughout the city as ones who take in the unwanted, like the seven abandoned infant girls they rescued and were later forced to turn over to the state. They are natural contacts for an unpleasant task like finding someone to bury a dead woman no one wants to claim.
Lu Bashi, the 19-year-old son of a war hero, wants to know things, especially about women. Privy to the gross violation of Shan’s dead body, he seeks information about her death. He is everywhere, using words and pulling threads to create pain, all the while trying to fill his own need for love. Nini is an easy target for his attentions, but as the events surrounding Shan’s death push them together, he finds his fascination becoming something deeper.
Tong is six. He has just come to Muddy River for school and is getting to know his parents for the first time after being raised by his grandparents. He wants nothing more than to make them, and the Communist Party, proud, but little things, like the disappearance of his dog Ear and Shan’s death, keep getting in the way.
Kai is the voice of Muddy River. A successful news announcer with a husband and child, she is expected to forget her past as an actress and the incorrect people she once knew: Jialin, an idealistic counterrevolutionary, and Shan.
Death is nothing new for any of them, but this time, some will say, Enough! We have been silent long enough. Murmuring spreads as the river’s ice thaws into spring. The eventual meltdown will affect everyone in Muddy River.
The Vagrants is the beautifully written debut novel of short story writer Yiyun Li. In many ways, it reads like a series of sketches woven together by the thread of Shan’s death. Everything has a consequence, Li tells readers, even if it is unseen. Everyone is connected. Everything has a cost.
One prominent theme is speech and silence, and with it, guilt. Slogans compete with whispers; rumors compete with the written word. Everyone tells stories and frames reality to his or her own ends. To be safe, it is necessary to be silent, compliant, Tong’s mother tells him.
The Vagrants also addresses the concept of value and permanence. Kai’s “perfect” voice is just one of many on the news. Nini’s sisters “little fourth,” “little fifth,” and “little sixth,” are not even worthy of names.
“Dogs got stolen and eaten all the time, [Tong’s] father had said the night before, and there was no reason to cry over it; the world would become a crowded place if dogs, or, for that matter, little children, did not disappear.”
The novel opens with an epigraph from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”:
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
This is an apt description of the characters in The Vagrants. In some way, each one is a vagrant, seeking something permanent in a society that is always shifting under their feet. To survive, one can hold tightly to nothing…
As a result, there are many ugly things in The Vagrants. The events are violent. The characters are flawed, short-sighted, prejudiced and self-seeking. There is as much to dislike about them as there is to praise.
But each one is impossible to hate. Like the rest of us, they are afraid. They are all trying to get by. They all long for acceptance, for love, for freedom from shame and fear. In a word, they are human. The success of Li’s novel is that it not only weaves them together, but it draws us, the readers, into the tapestry as well.