The Vagrants has got to be one of the grimmest novels I’ve read this year, and yet it is a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The author grew up in Beijing of the late 1970s, the tumultuous post-Mao period in a China which had emerged from the horrific Cultural Revolution without plans to replace it with anything positive. The population was splintered between those whose humanity had been virtually destroyed by the bludgeon of Maoist doctrine, those who were struggling to enter the modern era with a voice and an identity, and those caught betwixt and between.
Li’s story, apparently based on a true event, takes place in the poor industrial town of Muddy River, where the political elites of The Party strive to hold onto their privileges while the impoverished worker-bees and the growing hordes of homeless mostly keep their heads down and try not to be noticed. The mantra of this new era is summed up by one mother’s advice to her young son: “Always follow what’s been taught and you won’t make a mistake.”
The book opens on the eve of the execution of a young woman, a former fanatical Red Guard under Mao who was thrown in jail for her “counter-revolutionary” crimes, and then re-tried and sentenced to death for criticizing The Party from her jail cell. Her denunciation ceremony is a public event which all are expected to attend and while her fearful father, a teacher who lives mostly in the past, would join the town in denouncing his daughter, her bitter and grieving mother cannot accept her daughter’s fate. A democracy movement is growing in the Chinese capital, and Muddy River officials are terrified that it will reach their fiefdom if they are not on guard.
The novel follows the sometimes intersecting stories of a wide variety of Muddy River residents, ranging from the convicted girl’s parents and their neighbors to an aging couple of street sweepers, a deformed girl and her teenaged stalker, a child and his dog, and the disaffected wife of a Party official. The intense poverty, the paralyzing fear, the deceit and betrayals, and the violent rage just under the surface, are all explored in sometimes nauseating detail.
Li’s talent in short-story writing shows itself in this book, which reads almost like a series of independent vignettes, but which all ultimately cross paths in a chilling ending. There are quite a few books which have been written about the Cultural Revolution in all its horrors, but Li succeeds in shining a light on the period after Maos’ downfall, where the political purges addressed none of the underlying corruption that continued to shackle that nation. Despite the many advances since that time, there remain many scars on China’s socio-political landscape that have yet to be addressed. Li’s book is a harsh reminder of how deeply-seated within the population those scars lie.