Politics and Life, Inextricably Intertwined

Politics and Life, Inextricably Intertwined

Judith B. Walzer: Politics and Life, Inextricably Intertwined

Author Yiyun Li received a well-deserved MacArthur ?genius? grant earlier this week. Her latest book, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, is a collection of short stories, but it is in her one novel, The Vagrants, that Li?s writing is at its most illuminating.

The Vagrants is based on the conviction that politics affects everything one does, every day, and more inescapably in a rigidly repressive society. Even with that idea, there would be no novel here?or at least no readable one?without her deep understanding of how Chinese society operated in the decades before the death of Mao. There is another message, concealed and unexpressed: we may not notice the power of the political in our own lives?so different from the ones in this novel?because we are so free. Freedom is not a word that?s spoken in Li?s novel, although the whole book hangs on a vision of free speech and what happens, even to inarticulate people, when it is denied.

China in this era is doubly repressed: a totalitarian government conspires with ancient authoritarian habits to trap its people in hierarchy, poverty, scarcity, and political persecution that paralyzes and silences them. Gu Shan, a young woman who had been a fanatical (and sometimes violent) communist militant in the Cultural Revolution, starts to criticize?as vehemently as she once defended?the totalitarian state. For expressing her opinions, she is branded a ?counterrevolutionary,? imprisoned, tortured, and cruelly humiliated. There is a public denunciation ceremony that many of the novel?s characters attend; she is mutilated (her vocal chords destroyed to silence her), and then she is publicly executed. But it is not only Gu who suffers.

The novel knits together many characters in Muddy River, a small provincial city, tracing their connections to Gu Shan?s life: her ?crimes,? her politics, and her fate. Gu?s father, the quiet, poetic Teacher Gu, devastated by a professional demotion (he is regarded as a relic of the old regime), becomes completely passive, gives his daughter up for lost, and refuses to protest her persecution. Anyone less passive, who sympathizes with Gu Shan?s family or protests against the government?s actions, will be punished. When Mrs. Gu, tries to burn her daughter?s clothes?a prohibited traditional practice for a dead child?her doom is sealed. When Kai, a popular radio announcer, joins Jailin, a dissident dying of tuberculosis who leads the protest against Gu Shan?s treatment, she is ripped from her position and denounced by her ambitious husband?s family (though they too, will be punished for her rebellion.) For a moment, there is hope that the protest against her arrest will succeed. But the panic about growing dissidence in Beijing (it?s the time of the ?democracy wall?) overcomes any local support for her. The city?s masses cheer at the denunciations and the executions.

The characters who can barely hang onto the fringes of society manage to survive. They fall through the cracks of the political world, avoiding the attention of the regime. Some of them are guilty of petty ?crimes? that help their survival. Tong, a village boy recently come to Muddy River, signs his father?s name to the petition protesting Gu?s execution; he will be saved, but his father will pay the price. Nini, a shrewd and desperate disabled child, who does all the work for her family which hardly feeds her, links up with Bashi, a strange young man who lives as he pleases (he is the son of a pilot hero whom the government supports). Naïve, and oddly disturbed, Bashi informs on many of his acquaintances but is sent to prison along with them. The Huas, an elderly couple who subsist as sweepers in the town and scavengers on its garbage (the ?vagrants? of the title), finally decide to go on the road again as wanderers in an impossible world. Besides begging and scavenging, they?ve spent their lives rescuing baby girls who have been abandoned by their families, raising them until the society claims them as adults.

The novelist?s magic in this gripping narrative is to convince you that the reality of totalitarian politics is overwhelming. Reality dominates, not the artifices of literature. It is painful to see the deliberate stifling of life as it is acted out, but it?s not a literary matter. This is a novel ?you can?t put down? because of the knowledge and sadness it carries.