Friday, June 05, 2009

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

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.

I first heard of Yiyun Li last year when I went to see Wayne Wang's film 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers' at the Singapore International Film Festival. The film was so-so, but at the Q&A session with the director, a question was asked about Li's short story that the film was based on. It sounded interesting enough (and books tend to be better than films) so I picked it up from the local library, and the stories in this collection were not too bad, but neither did they really stick with me.

So I was surprised by her novel, The Vagrants, a moving tale about an ensemble of characters, of the little people and their thoughts, wishes, dreams. Among the stories are those of Bashi, the outcast who is obssessed with girls but ends up falling in love; Tong, a boy who cries for his lost dog and dreams of being a Young Pioneer; Nini, the disfigured girl spurned by her family, who treats her as their maid. The only real 'vagrants' are Mr and Mrs Hua, who used to roam from village to village, sifting through the garbage, and looking after abandoned baby girls.

Why is it that their stories, so unsettling, so bleak, can be so absorbing? The book revolves around the public denunciation, at which schoolchildren are in attendance, of Gu Shan, and her execution. There is such unhappiness, loneliness and pain in Muddy River, and I felt this sense of unease when reading it. Yet somehow the book manages to shines through with its human spirit, its candor and its heart.

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