The Vagrants ~ Yiyun Li

Before Tianamen Square, there was the Democratic Wall Movement of the ’70’s. With the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution only recently behind them, freedom was a ‘western’ imperialist concept. Set in the small hamlet of Muddy River, Gu Shan’s political consciousness is a mirror of the recent past, from a fervent Maoist to a so-called anti-revolutionary, Gu Shan has been arrested and will be made an example of. Even her parents abandon her, at least for a time. When she is executed and the ritual of public criticism (denunciation ceremony) is enacted, the backlash is muted but strong. Her father retreats into himself, a”prisoner of [his] own beliefs”, focuses “on the small patch of life in front of one’s eyes.” Teacher Gu describes he and his wife as “timid, law-abiding citizens”.

Later, speaking of his daughter, Teacher Gu writes letters to his ex-wife (that he never mails):

“…my daughter…was more a product of this revolutionary age than of her grandparents’ noble Manchu blood. She died of a poison that she had herself helped to concoct. Despite art and philosophy and your beloved mathematics and my faith in enlightenment, in the end, what marks our era – perhaps we could take the liberty to believe, for all we know, that this era may last for the next hundred years? – is the moaning of our bones crushed beneath the weight of empty words. There is no beauty in this crushing, and there is, alas, no escape for us now, or ever.”

Unfortunately lyricism of this sort is all to rare here.  This first novel is written in English (not her first language) and this may have resulted in a certain flatness of tone. That, of course, is difficult to say. Only in the letters of Teacher Gu is there anything that can be said to be inspired. In another letter, he writes:

We become prisoners of our own beliefs, with no one free to escape such a fate, and this…is the only democracy offered by the world.

It’s interesting to note that in this social cosmos, state loyalty trumps family loyalty. In ours, the opposite is true. Theoretically. The trumpeting of “family values” can be read as a mask for the creeping hegemony of  new-think. When we become prisoners of our own beliefs (and ‘prisoner’ indicates that the beliefs may not be our own at all) family loyalty falls behind. What a great irony.


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