Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
I really tried to give Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds (2020; translated by Ken Liu) a fair shake, pressing on even though I’d had problems with the book relatively early. And I think, given that I just about reached the halfway point (48% according to by Kindle), I did give the book a decent enough chance to win me over. But I just couldn’t push myself past that 50%, despite some intriguing ideas.
In the world of Vagabonds, Mars and Earth are in that awkward quasi-peace period after Mars decided they wanted to be independent some time back, sparking a destructive war whose repercussions are still being felt. The novel stars with the return of some young Martians who had been sent as a delegation to Earth a few years earlier as part of the reconciliation process. The main focus is on Luoying, a young dancer whose grandfather is the Consul of Mars (or, as Earth likes to style him, the dictator of Mars) and whose return to Mars is awkward for a host of reasons. A partial list includes: the huge difference between the consumer-capitalist culture of Earth and the more spartan-communal culture of Mars, re-adapting to the different physical environment (lighter gravity, always indoors), and her beginning to sense that there was more to her parents’ death some years back than she’d known.
Sharing the focus with Luoying is the Earthling documentary-maker Eko, who has come to Mars with Earth’s delegation, but who has his own reasons as well, including finding out why his teacher/mentor spent so many years on Mars. Eko also finds Mars’ attitude toward the arts, a decidedly non-market-driven attitude, to be far more enlightened and inspiring than Earth’s focus on popularity and profit.
I noted above that there are many intriguing ideas in the novel, and Jingfang’s exploration of the conflict between the two cultures is the source for all those ideas, many of which are thoughtfully presented in a welcome degree of complexity. My problem with Vagabonds, and what caused me to eventually give it up, is that I felt the ideas were prioritized over other elements that I need not necessarily to dominate a story — I thoroughly enjoy a good novel of ideas or a quiet character study — but to at least be present in somewhat adequate form: character, emotionality, style.
Now, Vagabonds is a novel in translation, so I can’t say what part of my issues stem from the original story, or the translation (it always seems unfair to criticize a translated work for voice, for instance), or just my lack of familiarity/comfort with the author’s culture. But generally, it felt like there was a lot of speechifying in the novel, a lot of clumsy exposition, characters who didn’t speak like people or didn’t speak naturally but instead were vehicles for themes, etc. The young characters, in particular, didn’t sound like young people. Some events that felt like they were supposed to have emotional impact did not. And while the writing has some lovely moments, there were also numerous times where I thought the metaphors/similes didn’t work to enhance or clarify; at least, it happened often enough I made a margin note after multiple times I’d thought so, and then again when it happened several times more.
If I’d had something else to lean on — compelling characters or style or something — I would have kept going because I did find the exploration of the two cultures, especially from the point of view of insiders turned outsiders to their own culture, intellectually stimulating. But the ideas themselves weren’t enough for me.
That’s a shame because these are some interesting ideas!