Yet another work of quality fiction I’ve stumbled across courtesy of my local library is Yiyun Li’s 2009 novel The Vagrants. Li, author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers as well as the winner of a host of literary awards including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, has crafted a tragic yet incredibly well-written novel. Set in 1979 during the Democracy Wall Movement, a promising yet quickly aborted period of political reform following the collapse of the chaotic Cultural Revolution and preceeding the Deng Xiaoping-lead era of modernization, it follows a host of intriguing yet considerably damaged characters from the backwater town of Muddy River. Galvanized by an unjust public execution and inspired by rumors of democratic awakenings in Beijing, the town’s residents lead by a former stage actress turned radio announcer take the unprecedented steps of staging a public protest to denounce the government’s recent execution of the condemned prisoner. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that history has its own tragic way of coming full circle.
I enjoyed Li’s novel not just for the writing, characters and plot, but for its setting as well. While large enough to possess a 15,000 seat sports stadium, Muddy River is completely isolated from the larger world. With the local newspaper, radio and TV station in the hands of the state and potentially dangerous books confiscated and pulped, compared to today’s world of high-speed Internet, cable TV and 24 hour news cycle Li’s town of Muddy River might as well be on the dark side of the moon.
Li has written an excellent novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it.