Since my flag recognition is dismal, I'll write nationality of authors I review at top. Yan Lianke is Chinese.
I wrote this review many months ago but never posted it anywhere. At the time, I felt very strongly about China's abuse of human rights as the Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei had been arrested. Since then, Wei Wei has been freed (but has no doubt been threatened with problems for himself or his family if he steps out of line again, as he is uncharacteristically cowed.) This little book was very powerful to me then, and it would probably still be if I read it now.
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke. Translated by Cindy Carter
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
It’s prescient that literary award winner Lianke’s novel is published within weeks of his fellow outspoken creative Ai Wei Wei’s arrest. Lianke’s novel, based on a true blood-selling scandal, was banned when first published in China, which is ironic because he self censored it by toning down his initial idea to try and avoid the ire of the censors, having previously been banned for fierce satires criticising the authorities. He was left feeling as if he’d compromised his initial idea in vain.
Lianke’s dedication to truth is clear: he worked undercover for years assisting a Beijing anthropologist studying the destruction of a Chinese village in Henan Province by AIDS in order to obtain the facts on which this novel is based.
The tale is narrated by a dead child, poisoned by villagers resentful of the decimation caused by his father Ding Hui’s actions: Hui pounced on an initiative introduced by county officials to generate money by paying villagers to sell blood. Hui’s father, the narrator’s grandpa, is decent and worked as caretaker and teacher at the school, but his sons are weak, Hui becoming rich by unscrupulous blood-selling and Liang causing gossip by having an affair with his cousin’s wife.
Hui milks the villagers of blood, sapping their strength, and his immoral cost cutting, re-using needles and swabs, leads to the spread of AIDS. As the villagers become too sick to tend their crops, Hui generates more income unethically by selling coffins donated for the sick by the authorities, and offering costly post-humous match-making services for victims. Grandpa has premonitory dreams which, together with his sagacity, place him in the role of wise village elder, but the villagers pay scant attention because of the behaviour of his sons.
Lianke’s portrait of a small rural community hurtling to its demise through the greed of a few is powerful, sobering and untinged by sentimentality: even in the throes of terminal illness, villagers still scrabble for power, engage in petty conflicts, steal, bribe and blackmail. Lianke’s concession to the censors is obvious – blame is deflected from the authorities onto the avaricious criminal Hui, and the authorities are shown to implement measures to try and compensate villagers for the devastation wrought by AIDS. But at best, the authorities still appear naive, and the unspoken sub-text is clear – pushing high-tech medicine as a way of generating income without providing resources and expertise is so foolhardy it’s indistinguishable from amorality.
The contrast between the simplicity of village life and the ravages that follow lend a cinematic quality to the prose: ‘Across the plain, those well enough to work were out in the fields. Their figures stood out beneath the distant sky like scarecrows swaying in the wind. And now, blowing in from the village, was another small figure, dragging a child behind her.’
Occasionally, Lianke’s tendency to repeat key events seems superfluous, but this is a compelling and shocking story of a traditional village pillaged by the greed of a few. Lianke is masterful at capturing the red tape of bureaucracy: ‘a sheaf of documents...mainly memos about memos, notices about notices, all sent down from higher levels of government.’ And he is brutally honest about the difference money and power make, buying everything from an easy life to a sumptuous death in an ornately engraved tomb.
Carter’s translation is fluid and natural, the only fault being that her avoidance of stilted speech leads to western colloquialisms/cliche’s (‘moth to a flame’, ‘mark my words’, ‘if looks could kill’, a dog running off with its ‘tail between its legs’, ‘get your arse out here’, ‘has the cat got your tongue?’) which occasionally sound out of place in the rural Chinese setting. But there are also wistful poetic images in keeping with the mood – grandpa dropped off by the bus ‘like a fallen leaf’; a philandering husband left by his wife and son thinking ‘if I die tomorrow, they’ll find me with two tears in my eyes: one for every good thing I’ve lost.’
Both as faction specific for this scandal and as allegory for other tragedies that occur wherever egregious appetites of the elite lead to devastation of the many, this beautifully evocative novel can’t be faulted.