The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a fictional Chinese town, in 1979. It opens with the denunciation and execution of a counterrevolutionary, Gu Shan. The novel follows the lives of several people, including Gu Shan's parents; Kai, a former classmate of Gu Shan's; Nini, a younger girl both with a congenital deformity; Baishi, a nineteen-year-old outcast described in the book's summary as "a sinister idler;" a young boy, Tong, and his dog, Ear; and the Huas, an old couple who had been beggars and had taken in abandoned infant girls.
Gu Shan's denunciation is brutal. Before she is brought before the crowd, her kidneys are removed to be transplanted to a senior party official and her vocal chords are cut to prevent her from shouting slogans. The atmosphere is festive and the reader is introduced to Tong when his class attends the denunciation and he dreams of joining the Young Pioneers and admires a fifth-grader from his school who speaks at Gu Shan's denunciation.
The public reaction to Gu Shan's execution, however, is mixed. Kai, a radio announcer married to the son of a local party official and whose husband played a significant role in Gu Shan's execution, has doubts about the execution. The reaction isn't because Gu Shan wasn't guilty of the charges made against her. She did express doubts about Mao's philosophy. Her first doubts were expressed in a letter to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend turned the letter over to party officials. Because of it, he was able to join the army, despite coming from a family of landowners, and Gu Shan was sentenced to ten year in prison. Later, she expressed further doubts in her diary and she tried again and sentence to death. However, despite her doubts, she hardly fought against the Communist government. In fact, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the events of the Cultural Revolution. She joined the Red Guards, denouncing her own parents and kicking the pregnant Nini's mother in the stomach, resulting in Nini's birth defects. The outrage over Gu Shan's execution is not due to sympathy for Gu Shan, but an overall discontent with the entire government. In fact, many of the events in The Vagrants take place because the local party officials are uncertain how to proceed due to confusion over a Democracy Wall in Beijing.
The narrative unfolds through the eyes of many different characters. The characters range from sympathetic (Kai, Teacher Gu, Gu Shan's father), sympathetic if disturbing (Tong, Nini) to downright disturbing (Baishi). I'm not sure that any of the characters were particularly likable, but I think that was probably the point, and the strength, of the book.
I found a Wall Street Journal interview with Yunyi Li. In it, she described her experiences in the re-education Army and how her seventeen year old squad leader forced her to submit a "propaganda-ish article" weekly to clean the pigsty:
I wish I'd acted rebellious and cleaned the pig sty, but I did not want to clean the pigsty, so I would write for her. I didn't pursue my idealism because I did not want to clean the pigsty. We all compromised.
This meshes with my overall impression of the book. For the most part, the characters in the book didn't even reach the point of considering whether to rebel or clean the pigsty. Life was so hard and there was so little room for compassion that the amount of casual cruelty and the lack of compassion was staggering. There were a few instances of animal cruelty in this book and, with the exception of Tong's feelings for Ear, there seemed to be little to no empathy for living things. The amount of fear and deprivation that most citizens of Muddy River suffered on a daily basis left them with little room to consider the suffering of other humans, much less that of animals. (There were, of course, a few noteworthy examples to the contrary, such as workers "accidentally" dropping coal for Nini to take home.)
At the end, it's hard to figure out how to explain my feelings toward The Vagrants. I didn't enjoy reading in, in that nothing about the novel was a pleasant experience. I didn't like it and I certainly wouldn't want to reread it again. And if I took anything away from the novel, it was that I'm very, very glad that I don't live in post-Mao China...not that I wanted to before this.
Still, it's a fairly powerful work. I didn't come away with a new perspective because of the book and I wasn't able to form an attachment to any of the characters, so their eventual fates weren't particularly moving. At the same time, though, Li does a wonderful job of helping the reader to understand where the characters are coming from and, since she presents them without judgment, there were times when I found myself not as horrified as I should be at some of the characters decisions. For instance, Baishi and Nini were both unlikable characters and the idea of nineteen-year-old Baishi pursuing twelve-year-old Nini for want of a better option (and Nini manipulating Baishi for similar reasons) should have been utterly repugnant, but given the atmosphere and the lack of options for both, I occasionally found myself thinking "Would it really be that bad?"
The Vagrants doesn't really cover any new ground in Communist China and it's downright depressing, but I still think it's worth reading, if only because it's so well-written and offers an interesting perspective.