As I started reading Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village, I was reminded of a favourite novel of mine, Albert Camus‘ The plague. However, as I read on, the similarity started to fade – or, perhaps it’s just that the particularity of Lianke’s conception took over. Both books explore a community living with a highly contagious, deadly disease, and both can be “read” through the lens of a wider political interpretation, but the two stories are told differently. For a start, Camus does not make his political “reading” literal while Lianke closely intertwines the political with the personal in his novel. No wonder this novel was published in Hong Kong and banned in China!
The story was inspired by the fallout that occurred from Henan Province‘s plasma economy, 1991-1995, in which Chinese were encouraged to sell their blood plasma. According to the Wikipedia article, it is estimated that over 40% of the blood donors (sellers) contracted AIDS, due to the low health and safety standards applied to the campaign. It’s a tragic story and Lianke uses it to tell a cautionary tale about a rush to progress that seems to cast humanity to the winds.
So, how does he tell it? The story is narrated by the dead son of “blood kingpin” Ding Hui. Qiang was poisoned in an act of revenge for his father’s role in bringing “the fever” (HIV/AIDS) to Ding Village. In the clear, non-judgemental voice of a child, Qiang proceeds to chronicle events in the village as the disease takes hold, using occasional flashbacks to fill in the gaps. His is not a schmaltzy or sentimental voice. It’s simply the voice of an omnipotent narrator who happens to have also been part of the story, before the novel starts, and whose “existence” initiates its dramatic denouement. It’s an interesting device that nicely balances involvement with distance. We get close, but not too close, to the people and events.
The novel is told in 8 Volumes, and progresses chronologically from the appearance of the fever to when its impact on Ding Village is complete. Qiang tells his story primarily through the actions and behaviour of his grandfather, a man who hangs onto his ethics throughout the crisis while trying, mostly against his better judgement, to remain loyal to his two self-centred sons. A difficult task for the hard-working man entrusted with caring for the school and being its teacher when qualified teachers couldn’t be found. While Grandpa does his best to support the villagers in their darkest time, his oldest son Ding Hui engages in scam after scam (such as selling the government’s “free” coffins and organising “marriages” between dead people) to feather his own nest and further climb the greasy pole of bureaucracy.
Along the way, the stories of other villages are told, such as that of the adulterous couple Ding Liang and Lingling who, having uninfected spouses, decide to find affection in each other’s arms. It’s hard to feel they deserved the disapprobation they received (from most, though not all, in the village), but, speaking novelistically, they usefully represent the breakdown in normal codes of behaviour. Early in the novel, there is a respite from the horror when Grandpa invites all infected villagers to live at the school – and for a while a real community develops among the sick and dying. It doesn’t last of course and, as in The plague, bad things start to happen as the villagers respond to their disastrous situation. Graves are robbed, buildings ransacked, and, in a terrible scenario, the village is denuded of all its trees by villagers needing to make coffins. Black humour is never too far from the tone, and this tree-felling scene provides a perfect example.
It’s all powerful stuff and is conveyed through strong writing that uses physical description to underscore the devastation occurring in the village. I particularly liked the paradoxical use of the sun, gold and yellow throughout the novel to convey on one hand, warmth, prosperity and harmony, and on the other drought, desiccation and oppression, with the latter becoming precedent as “the fever” and associated corruption take hold:
Translucent, pale yellow and green leaves shimmered in the sunlight like golden offerings.
… leaving Grandpa standing in the middle of the road, beneath the blazing sunshine, like a small clay figure of a man that someone had left to dry in the sun. Like an old wooden hitching post bleached by the rotting wood that no one wanted any more.
Other colours also pervade the book such as blood-red suns and green leaves and grass, continuing the disconnect between life and death that characterises Ding Village in the throes of “the fever”.
There’s something about the form though that puzzled me and that’s the use of italics. Sometimes they are used for Grandpa’s dreams – dreams that are often prescient, occasionally surreal – and sometimes they are used for flashbacks. But sometimes I couldn’t quite work out the reason, other than that they were possibly for ideas or events slightly out of kilter with the narrative point at which they occur. I’m not sure that the differentiation, except perhaps to delineate Grandpa’s dreams, serves the novel well.
This is a minor quibble though in a book that explores how greed leads to skewed values (“I spent my whole life doing philanthropy” says the serial scammer Ding Hui) and provides an opening for political corruption. Fast economic progress, Lianke seems to be saying, cannot be simply or easily pasted over cultural traditions that have taken centuries to build … but his vision is not, I think, completely hopeless. “A cool breeze”, he writes near the end, “carried the mingled scents of rotting plants and newly sprouted grass across the plain”. Let’s hope that “newly sprouted grass” gets the upper hand.
For reviews by other members of the Shadow Man Asian Prize jury, please click on my Man Asian page.
Dream of Ding Village
(trans. by Cindy Carter)
New York: Grove Press, 2009 (2005, orig. Chinese ed.)