Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Unremittingly Bleak

Review of The Vagrants by Yiyun Li - posted on Amazon.

Gu Shan, a 28 year old former Red Guard, is executed one spring day in 1979. After her years of fanaticism, including the denunciation of her own parents, her crime is to have confided doubts about Communism to her boy-friend – who promptly turned her in for career reasons.

It’s two years after Mao’s death and China is taking a deep breath. There’s a Democracy Wall in Beijing and a power struggle as to how to respond. In the little provincial town of Muddy River, where Gu Shan meets her end, pent-up frustrations cohere sparking a mini protest movement in response.

Yiyun Li, the author, was born in China in 1972 and grew up in the society she describes. She has created a set of beautifully realised characters to etch out a picture of small-town life, people we get to know well and to care about. Gu Shan’s death and the spirit of the times creates a fault line, which is illuminated in the responses of each of her characters in the immediate aftermath.

We know from the blurb that it’s all going to end shockingly badly and as opinion hardens in Beijing, the crackdown impacts upon Muddy River like a tsunami, brutally cutting down both real and imagined enemies of the revolution.

I thought at first that not one of the characters at the end of this novel had emerged with any shred of fortune or dignity. But on reflection I except Old Hua and his wife, the beggar couple who had asked little of the world and had experienced all of its tragedies. Perhaps they alone left the scene with their self-respect intact, the product of a properly Taoist survival strategy.