The Vagrants

Welcome to Communist China circa 1979, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. It’s execution day in the “new” provincial town of “Muddy River.” A school holiday has been declared, and the population has assembled in a partylike mood in the village square. The condemned, a woman named Gu Shan, is brought up onstage to face her accusers, her vocal chords severed so that she can’t shout out any more of her counterrevolutionary tirades. Shan is duly denounced, but before she is shot, her kidneys are removed so that they can be given to a needy Party official. (The man who arranges the “donation” is rewarded with a television set.)

This is a world of unrelenting cruelty and bleakness, in which unwanted baby girls eat glue and are not given proper names but referred to as “Little Fourth,” “Little Fifth, “Little Sixth,” and so on; where, in winter, people sleep on brick platforms with fires underneath them for warmth and line up in the cold at dawn to use the communal outhouse. Were this novel not so brilliant in its rendering of the complexity of human character and written in such perfect, unadorned English (a language the author did not fully learn until she was in her 20s), and did it not contain moments of unexpected sweetness and redemption, it would be almost impossible to read. But be aware: every word in this book is necessary; you cannot afford to miss a single one.

At the center of the story is the outcast Nini, a deformed 12-year-old girl. Nini serves as her parents’ maid, and her main job is to care for her nameless baby sisters. Hope arrives for Nini when Bashi, a strange figure who by most standards would be called a pedophile, tries to seduce her by offering her some coal to stave off the winter chill, and then falls in love with her.

The main events of the novel radiate from Shan’s execution, an event which galvanizes the heretofore passive population of the town to seek, if not change, the meaning and comfort in their lives. Bashi, who has witnessed Shan’s mutilated body, sets out to poison the dog of Kwen, the sadist who performed the deed. The beautiful Kai, Shan’s old schoolmate, who presided over the denunciation ceremony in her role as the town’s radio announcer, is so ridden with guilt over Shan’s death that she risks her life to join a political movement, demanding that the execution be investigated and Shan’s reputation restored.

The book’s author claims that she was a witness to some of the horrors she describes. Li was born in Beijing in 1972 and remembers seeing a denunciation ceremony when she was a five-year-old. When pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, Li was a high school student, and her parents locked her in her room to keep her from harm’s way. The protests, of course, resulted in a massacre.

Li came to the United States in 1996 to study immunology at the University of Iowa. In an effort to stave off the loneliness of being a foreigner, she took an adult education class in English. She eventually enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and sold a short story to the Paris Review. Her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a story collection that depicted the lives of both mainland Chinese and American immigrants, was widely praised and inspired a film directed by Wayne Wang.

In The Vagrants, Li has taken the brutality of her childhood experiences and rendered them into high art. She has found salvation in small, sacred moments such as that when Shan’s mother, in an ancient ritual, burns her daughter’s clothing at the village crossroads to provide warmth for her in the afterlife. Shan’s father, Teacher Gu, whose elegant, scholarly mind was honed in prerevolutionary China, suffers a stroke in his shock and grief at his daughter’s death. In an effort to make sense of his pain, he seeks surcease from his suffering in venerable Buddhist texts. “He who was said to be the wisest among the wise,” Gu writes at one moment, “he who was said to have vast and endless love for the world — who was he but an old man with blind hope, talking tirelessly to a world that would never understand him?”

A vivid collection of innocents and saints wanders amid the sadists and corrupt Party officials who populate the town. There is the sweet, seven-year-old Tong, whose father is a brutal drunk who spends his days searching for his lost dog; and the Huas, the vagrant couple of the book’s title, who collect the town’s garbage, dispose of its dead, and rescue the abandoned baby girls they find amid its refuse. The Huas care for the girls and give them the names of flowers: Morning Glory, Peony, Lotus, Hibiscus.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of the glorious Chinese spring, which cannot help but intrude upon the misery of the town. “The world was a beautiful place under the spring sky,” Li writes at one point, “with the new moon surrounded by silver stars and a gentle breeze combing its unseen fingers through the long branches of the willow trees.” Although the villagers are forbidden by the government to celebrate the traditional seasonal holiday of Ching Ming, they do so anyway, traveling into the mountains to picnic amid the newly blossoming flowers.

The novel’s climax occurs when the townspeople gather once again in the square, this time to protest Shan’s death. Each carries a tiny white paper flower which is dropped into a basket in front of Shan’s mother. These are small, nonviolent gestures on the part of a heretofore voiceless people; inevitably, they result in awful repercussions. Provincial officials descend on the town to investigate. Children are interrogated by their teachers and encouraged to betray their parents. Beatings and torture ensue. The town is virtually destroyed, the fabric of its loyalties and affections rent asunder.

But love is hope, and hope triumphs. Nini goes off with old Hua and his wife to become a beggar like them. She will be their last “daughter.” The love of Bashi, weirdly pure for all its strangeness, awaits her.

For now, in this China at least, to be a beggar is the only real freedom.