In a tumultuous China, days of rage

By Richard Eder
March 15, 2009
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The breakup of an ice shelf is a dangerous thing: The result is not a warming and moderating sea but tidal surges and the drifting crunch of icebergs. The death of Mao Zedong, China's own vast polar cap, produced no immediate thaw but spasms of repression, instead, against early whispers of change.

Yiyun Li, born in China and now an American, has placed her first novel in 1979, three years after Mao's death. They are years when those who hold power wield it with a hand all the crueler because it shakes.

Li has invented a provincial town called Muddy River to reflect the tremors produced in a dozen lives. With sometimes unbearable vividness, they tell the history of the time. It's one that, in its treacherous uncertainty, harks back to a previous upheaval planned under Mao: the Cultural Revolution's Red Guard rampage against the regime's own hierarchies.

The immediate event that sparks change in Muddy River, followed by brutal repression, goes back, in fact, to the Red Guard days. Shan, daughter of the schoolteacher Gu, had been a screaming Guard leader; then with equal extremity she denounced it and Mao. A 10-year jail term followed. When it was about to end, her jailers discovered writings that carried her defiance further; deranged by maltreatment, she was re-tried and sentenced to be shot.

"The Vagrants" opens on the morning of her execution after a compulsory hate rally. We meet assorted townspeople, each with his or her own story. (Li earlier wrote an accomplished story collection set in the flourishing 1990s; her novel, despite its unifying theme, sometimes struggles to move past its vignettes.)

Gu, who taught under the Nationalists and made a point of subservience ever since, tries to dissuade his wife from her weeping. "Everybody dies," he tells her. Kai, a radio announcer married to Han, a privileged member of the local Party establishment, is a quiet dissident. Bashi is a quirky young dilettante, part innocent, part weasel, and living off a handsome pension from his war-hero father. Tong, a schoolboy, is a starry-eyed believer bent on winning the red scarf of a Young Pioneer.

Even as the ritual anti-Shan demonstration proceeds (Li nicely portrays the town going about its business an hour later, the fiery enforced slogans giving way to mothers calling their children for lunch), an uncertain struggle is going on in Beijing. One faction pushes for a loosening of restrictions; a "democratic wall" has been set up for protests.

News spreads instantly to Muddy River. Its previously acquiescent intelligentsia, led by Kai, organizes a rally denouncing Shan's execution. White flowers are passed out, hundreds attend (including schoolboy Tong, now a protester), people line up to shake the hands of Kai and Mrs. Gu - Shan's mother and, unlike her husband, a grieving firebrand. The local Party leaders, committed to the Beijing reactionaries, are in a panic. Han offers to divorce Kai so she won't be tainted if his side loses.

The tremor passes. In Beijing the progressives retreat, the democratic wall comes down. Vanloads of security police roar into Muddy River; hundreds are arrested, beaten, and given long sentences. Bashi turns informer but goes to jail anyway; Tong denounces his schoolmates and gets his red scarf; Han divorces Kai to save not her but himself. Kai's fate will mirror Shan's.

Not quite. Why, she asks the officer escorting her to the death rally, were her vocal cords not cut like Shan's? "All prisoners deserve civilized treatment," he replies blandly. And no doubt sincerely. Because things do after all change. Slowly.

Li gives a brutal picture of how things were. After Shan is shot, old Gu rummages anxiously in search of a necessary paper. It is the receipt proving he paid for the bullet that killed her. And Shan's slit vocal cords were the least of the atrocities. Her kidneys were removed while she was still alive; a senior Beijing official who needed a transplant demanded living tissue.

What the author is after, though, is not so much the atrocities as the damage to mind and spirit of those who feel they must carry them out. Three voices speak a ghastly coda.

A woman prison guard remembers fainting when obliged to hold Shan down for the vocal-cord cutting. A police-station orderly keeps waking his wife to recount mopping a bucketful of blood from the jeep used to transport her.

And the surgeon who excises her living kidneys tells himself that she had to die anyway and that he has now secured promotions for himself and his wife, and places in an elite high school for his daughters.

Wife and daughters are sleeping peacefully. "And he found it hard not to ponder the day when he could no longer shelter them, the two daughters especially, from the ugliness of a world that they were in love with now, rosebud-like girls that they were."

Richard Eder writes reviews for various publications.


By Yiyun Li

Random House, 337 pp., $25

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