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The Great Pall of China

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, February 13, 2009

THE VAGRANTS

By Yiyun Li

Random House. 337 pp. $25

Muddy River, a fictional city, is a settlement of about 80,000 people, hastily built by the Chinese government to increase production and make the country more prosperous. It lies about 900 miles from Beijing along the bank of the Muddy River itself, and at the base of some unnamed mountains. It's certainly bigger than a village but far from being a metropolis.

"The Vagrants," a powerful and thoughtful novel, is set in 1979. The past 30 years of the country's history have been frenzied. The communists defeated the nationalists and marched into Beijing in 1949. In 1955 an attempt to boost steel production called the Great Leap Forward backfired and became a three-year famine that killed millions. The Cultural Revolution, in which Mao Zedong spoke directly to students, workers, soldiers and peasants, charging them with purging all leftover elements of bourgeois imperialism, began in 1966 and caused untold destruction of priceless antiques, temples, art objects and books, as well as the hideous degradation of anyone tabbed as an intellectual; it lasted, on and off, for about 10 years.

Now, in 1979, over in Beijing, something called the Democracy Wall has come into being. Students and activists have taken to posting essays on that wall, speculating on what the concept of democracy might mean for the country. Ten years later, in 1989, this kind of thinking will lead to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, but for now nobody knows what the government thinks about that wall, and here in Muddy River they scarcely have time to notice it.

They're still dealing with the results of the Cultural Revolution: students coming home from the countryside where they've been "reeducated," people who have been jailed for years and are just now getting out of prison -- or not. When Mao called on disaffected teenagers to "cleanse" the country, he may have gotten more than he bargained for. What sulky teenager doesn't harbor a grudge against his parents and teachers or the clerk at the general store who once shortchanged him? After the teenagers had done their damage against the counterrevolutionaries, many of them were also jailed as (you guessed it) counterrevolutionaries.

This novel is, among other things, a story of two girls who attended the same first-grade class, one going on to become a ferocious Red Guard, the other to have a pleasant career on the regional stage. The actress, Kai, has returned to Muddy River to be a radio announcer; the other, Gu Shan, is to be executed today.

Gu Shan's parents, Teacher Gu and Old Mrs. Gu, wake to the worst day of their lives. As a rebellious 14-year-old, Gu Shan had enthusiastically participated in the Cultural Revolution, beating down doors, destroying historical artifacts, and -- in one case, just for the hell of it -- kicking a pregnant woman's stomach, causing her to give birth to a badly deformed child. Gu Shan was imprisoned for about a decade as a counterrevolutionary and, totally insane by then, was given a new trial, only to receive the death sentence. Today will include her execution and a series of festive "Denunciation Ceremonies" all over the city, complete with songs, slogans, field trips from every public school, and people given the day off to attend along with their work units.

We are all, in some way, stuck between the old and the new. Teacher Gu, an intellectual aristocrat whose parents met while they were students in Paris, has been demoted to teaching in a public elementary school. But he clings, in his mind at least (all his books have been destroyed), to an idea of civilization, the consolations of philosophy. His second wife, the mother of Gu Shan, comes from a lower class and was illiterate when they met. Her project for today is to burn clothes (in public) so that her daughter will have enough to wear in the next world. The husband and wife turn to their respective pasts; for them, the future is unbearable.

The Gu family has many neighbors and acquaintances: ex-peasants, mostly, who are casually brutish to one another and to their children. We see a couple cursed (in the Chinese way of thinking) with six girls, one of them, Nini, deformed by Gu Shan's vicious kick. The parents could never work up the gumption to kill her when she was born, even though the landscape around Muddy River is littered with abandoned infant girls, living and dead. They keep Nini around as an unpaid servant on whom they vent all their displeasure. She is loathed by everyone who looks at her, except for a strange boy who harbors lustful desires he hasn't yet been able to act upon. He actually likes her; she becomes his friend.

Other people wander the city. Tong, a 6-year-old, was living happily in a rustic village with his grandparents until he was yanked into town for his education. His father is a buffoonish drunk, and Tong turns for comfort to the only creature who loves him, his dog, Ear, who will come to a sad end. At the other end of the economic spectrum is Kai, the beautiful and kindhearted ex-actress who has returned to Muddy River and made a good marriage to Han, the nicest man in the world but dumb as a plank. Kai herself is in love with a dying man who harbors thoughts of a greater, finer, fairer China.

The execution is a hideous spectacle. Gu Shan is brought onstage with her vocal cords slit so she can't shout slogans; her kidneys have been removed while she was still alive. This barbarous act may or may not result in a promotion for Han, but a string of awful and unexpected events occurs. For one thing, Kai is moved to organize a demonstration to object to the brutalities that Gu Shan has undergone. Over in Beijing, the government suddenly decides that the Democracy Wall is a bad thing and cracks down on everything it perceives as subversive. That, in itself, may be part of what sets off the huge debacle in Tiananmen Square 10 years later.

The author, raised in China, was considered a math prodigy, but when she came to the United States, she settled in Iowa City and took advantage of the university's writing programs. She's become a terrific writer. She doesn't condemn or condescend to a single soul here, just makes us see how nerve-racking and soul-killing it must be to live in a despotic nation run by a lot of very high-strung people. For readers who love complex novels about worlds we scarcely understand, "The Vagrants" will be a revelation.

This Sunday in Book World

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· The least-likely bestseller from Japan.

· And a roundup of military memoirs.

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