Dream of Ding Village seems to be only the second of Yan Lianke’s novels to be translated into English, the first having been the earlier Serve the People. Whereas, from the title onward, Serve the People seems more in keeping with the satirical style he is associated with (it will not surprise you to learn that both novels have been banned in China), Dream of Ding Village, for all it is equally scathing in its portrayal of government both nationally and locally, is probably in that category of documentary fiction which only seems satirical because you can hardly believe that it happened. As the title suggests, Lianke tells his story – that of the spread of AIDs in rural China through blood collection – by focusing on the events in one village. By adopting a communal narrative rather than centring the story on an individual, Lianke emphasises that this ‘plague’ destroyed communities as well as lives, while at the same time making it clear that Ding Village is simply representative of the devastation which many villages experienced.
The novel begins with the village already decimated by death:
“Choked by death, it will not die. In the silent shades of autumn, the village has withered, along with its people. They shrink and wither in tandem with the days, like corpses buried underground.”
It is already clear that those who have sold their blood might be taken any day by the ‘fever’. How long they will last varies, but they will eventually die. Lianke is not interested in the tension that he might create by sketching the arrival of the ‘plague’; he is concerned with the individual stories of those who have it. As the novel progresses, we hear the tales of those who, for various reasons, chose to sell blood. This retrospective approach adds to the pathos. The common denominator is often a desperate poverty: selling blood seems an almost miraculous chance of prosperity. Thatched roofs are replaced with tiles; houses develop second storeys. Only later is the cost made plain.
In keeping with a novel about death, the narrator is also dead, not from AIDs but
“…because my dad had run a blood collection station in Ding village ten years earlier….He wasn’t just a blood merchant, he was a blood kingpin.”
The narrator, his twelve-year-old son, is poisoned in revenge, and, just in case we have any doubt that Ding Hui is the villain of the piece, we are immediately told that “the day I died my dad didn’t even cry.” Ding Hui profits from the suffering of others throughout: having first become wealthy form buying and selling blood, he goes on to exploit the sale of coffins, and finally makes money out of arranging marriages between those who have died single.
If Ding Hui is the villain, then the hero is his father, the narrator’s Grandpa, who apologises to the village on behalf of his son when Hui refuses. As school caretaker, he then opens the school to the sick and looks after them. A respected figure in the village at the beginning, this respect dwindles due to the behaviour of his sons. His other son, Ding Liang, is a more ambiguous character. Though frequently selfish, and characterised by his lazy grin which suggests he takes nothing seriously, he begins an affair with a married woman who, like him, has the ‘fever’. Although his father is ashamed by this behaviour, which is used to blackmail him at one point, Liang simply wants to continue living life as fully as he can, and some of the scenes between Liang and his mistress are genuinely tender, especially as they near death, though never sentimental.
The only aspect of the novel I felt to be unnecessary was the conceit of the Grandpa’s dreams. Sometimes they allowed him to foresee what would happen; at other times they worked through symbolism. Generally they interrupted rather than added to the narrative which was strong enough without them. Indeed, it is the strength of the story, grounded in an appalling truth, which makes this novel so vital. But, though Ding Hui borders on caricature at times, and the ending is a little too neat, it is a story that is also skilfully told.