The Vagrants, By Yiyun Li

It may be set against the grey cultural landscape of communist China, but this novel is full of colour
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The Independent Culture

Fourteen-year-old Gu Shan was "a young Red Guard ready to rip the world apart" in the provincial Chinese city of Muddy River at the onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Within four years, this zealous revolutionary would lose her faith in communism. Having spent a decade in prison for her liberalised opinions, Gu Shan is re-tried in 1979 and sentenced to death. With vocal chords cut to ensure her silence during her public denunciation, she is taken for execution via a back alley pit stop where her kidneys are cut out for transplant into an ailing senior Party official.

With this last casual inhumanity, relayed almost in parentheses, Yiyun Li succinctly sets the tone of the communist administration's preoccupation with Party preferment and its arrogant disrespect for individual life. Gu Shan's grim, brutal demise is the initial and central event in Li's powerful debut novel, whose circumspect plot maps out the gradual reaction to Shan's fate among a broad cross-section of citizens.

Most are cowed. Don't wear bright colours, one old father warns, because "people would notice and talk". The strictures on Maoist uniformity may have relaxed, but a similar drabness of mind still permeates the paranoid fabric of family and social life, which Li pulls out with shrewd observation. Diligent seven-year-old Tong, yearning to be given the red scarf of a Young Pioneer, is similarly guided by his mother: "always follow what's been taught and you won't make a mistake".

In contrast to this proscriptively grey cultural landscape, The Vagrants is thronged with life and colour. Li's bustling cast includes travelling beggars, drunken workers and snippy, shrill zealots indentured to Party supremacy. These warm and vital characters are the collective strength of The Vagrants. Li's least convincing figures, however, are the drivers of her gradual plot – chiefly Wu Kai, a well-connected radio announcer whose public protest against the treatment of Gu Shan coincides with pro-democracy rumblings in distant Beijing. Kai is two-dimensional and remarkably passionless in her embrace both of the protest and its reprisals. This feels at odds with the narrative's mingle of richly nuanced ordinary lives whose anxious hopes and routine privations Li delicately coheres into a powerful sense of loss.

This eloquent, brooding novel bleakly anticipates the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy agitators in Tiananmen Square. While perhaps less dramatic than some of the dissident literature coming out of China in recent years, The Vagrants offers an intense accumulation of personal tragedies, but scant succour or optimism in its stark portrayal of a repressive regime bent on obliterating the individual.