Kristianne Huntsberger, a writer, a performance artist, a folklorist, and one of the world's true booksellers, joins Ernie Hoyt and Janet Brown at Asia By the Book.
At the raw end of the Cultural Revolution, three years after Chairman Mao's death and the Gang of Four's arrest, the residents of small-town China are reeling from the upheaval, trying to decipher some meaning to their lives. Yiyun Li takes us into the private world of the people of Muddy River, where a dozen appropriately charming and idiosyncratic characters grapple with problems, both personal and patriotic, which arise following the public execution of Teacher Gu's daughter, Gu Shan. A former pioneer of Mao, Shan’s public doubt of communism brands her a dangerous counterrevolutionary. For her dissension, and the threat she poses to society, she is killed. But the people's commitment to these demonstrations is not as fervent as it once was and the seed of doubt is transferred to them.
Shan's death reminds each character of his or her inescapable fate. Identity is unalterable and we are confined both by our past and by the popular perception. The novel's Shakespearian fool, Bashi, notes that his perceived idiocy is "one of the rare crimes for which one could never get enough punishment. A robber or a thief got a sentence of a year or more for a crime--a stolen purse--but the tag of idiot, just as counterrevolutionary, was a charge against someone's very being.” For these charges one cannot serve time and gain reconciliation with society; the sentence of one's identity is final.
We see the characters trying to escape these identity confines, trying to see new possibilities and to alter the course of their lives. There is a scent of change, a flicker of hope and some unidentifiable potential. Ultimately though, it is Teacher Gu's dark voice of reason that shadows the actions of all the others.
When Mrs. Gu, fed up with the injustice of her daughter's death, the inability to perform proper mourning rights, and the overall sense of confinement, reaches her transformative moment, she is brought down by her husband's determined acquiescence: "'What I own is my fortune; what I'm owed is my fate,'"Teacher Gu answered. The words sounded soothing and he repeated them one more time to himself in a low chanting voice. His wife did not reply and shut herself in the bedroom."
Teacher Gu recognizes the utter hopelessness of their human condition and the commonality of suffering, wherein every action is as hopeless as the letters that he mails to his first wife, which are intercepted, surprisingly passed through the censors, and dropped unopened upon the desk of the woman who lies dying in a hospital bed somewhere out of reach.
Yiyun Li's language is rich and her characters charming for their deeply human flaws. Already acknowledged with several awards, including a Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and a PEN/Hemingway Award, Yiyun Li skillfully blends personal exploration and social commentary. She calls upon her memories of China, which she left in 1996, to create an authentic and complicated story of a country and its people.