There is an otherness to the writing of the Chinese author Yiyun Li, a sense that her fiction is different from what we are accustomed to. This is not because of her turn of phrase. It is true that some of her similes are not typically English. She writes of an old woman ". . . her senses already dull as a rusty knife unearthed from an ancient tomb . . ." and we can see that this is a longer construction than we are used to. But this extended style has been present in our literary culture for some time. For example, Sid Smith's Whitbread-winning Something Like a House, a novel set against the background of the Cultural Revolution, was full of writing like this.
Neither is it the way in which her narrative detonates mini- explosive devices - in the middle of backstories or passages of exposition - that stop you dead, spin you around and leave you looking for meaning in an entirely different direction from the one in which you were travelling. The best writers are all capable of this. Li herself has acknowledged the influence of the short-story writer Isaac Babel, and he was better at it than most. No, it is clearly not a technical distinction. And so the thought occurs that it is what she is saying about the world that is the source of her difference.
The Vagrants is based on real events. It is set in a Chinese town in 1979, two and a half years after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is about the denunciation and killing of a former Red Guard and the impact that her death has on a wide range of formidably constructed characters. We are told the stories of Teacher and Mrs Gu, the perplexed parents of the executed young woman, and Tong, a hopeful boy who has lost his dog. There is a relationship between a wealthy simpleton and a deformed nine-year-old girl who is hungry enough to eat the paste from fly-postings. A local radio announcer and party mouthpiece, Kai, meets with the counter-revolutionary Jialin; two former beggars, Old Hua and Mrs Hua, take in and raise abandoned baby girls.
What links most of this vivid cast is their fatalism. They are guided not by what is right or wrong, but by expediency in the face of forces outside their control. It is unsettling to read, but you have to acknowledge its fidelity, too. The personal lives of the characters are largely unsentimental - "The decision to marry is not much different from serving a meal to a tableful of guests," reckons Kai, "with different people to consider" - and this dispassion is a recognisable human trait. Moreover, when it is replicated in the relationship of the community to the regime, it reads like the truth. Because this is how communities go about their business. After the woman's execution, hundreds of people protest. Thousands don't.
Nor is this complicity in what becomes a terrifying catalogue of totalitarian brutality restricted to the hungry, poor and ill-educated. "Conscience is not a part of what one needs to live," insists the intellectual Teacher Gu. Later, disillusioned with people's hubris in presuming that they know how best to make a difference, he is disgusted by his wife's "desire to do good and right things".
The Vagrants is divided into three parts. Two-thirds of the way through, you are struggling with the implacability of Li's message. Her eyes are cold and it seems that no one will be spared her gaze. As you read, you wince. Could it be that the unflinching nature of her fatalism is the source of her otherness?
No. Li is too good a writer to leave you with such a one-dimensional view of the world, however uniquely unsettling its construction may be. One of her tutors at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, James McPherson, has commented that "we have lost the community voice" in our fiction. Reading on, you are reminded of Jialin and of the hundreds of protesters and of how, although her principal focus is the sound of the silent majority, Li captures every conceivable register of this voice. And then you realise that what sets her apart from most writers is her extraordinary humanity, the breadth of her insight, her ability to be unflinching and full of hope at the same time.
This is a book of immense power and it will leave you reeling. Ha Jin, the exiled Chinese novelist, has said: "I am not a political writer, but my characters' lives are often affected by politics." Yiyun Li could never justify such a claim. She is undeniably a political writer. And it is a pity that our culture’s interpretation of the description does not do justice to someone who is capable of such an uncompromising yet humane portrayal of the bleakest of times.