Interestingly this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Asian Literary Prize in 2011, although I am not reviewing it here as part of that shortlist, it makes its way onto my blog from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. First up on my journey through the riches of the Foreign Fiction shortlist was Iceland, then onto Finland (even though translated from Italian), then Germany and now I’ve taken a massive leap away from Europe deep into rural China. I’ll be back in Europe soon though as I’ve just started Umberto Eco’s latest.
Dream of Ding Village is written in very much a different style and feel than the first three from the list and the nuanced language at times did bring forth images of Chinese characters – a great leap from the stark removed style of Alice by Judith Hermann, which I finished only the day prior to starting this.
This novel is told through the eyes of a young dead boy, the son of a local “blood merchant”. However the boy is not the central character here, with the father Ding Hui, his brother Ding Liang and their father, commonly referred to as Grandpa the main protagonists. The young boy’s death, from poisoning, is the result of the local Ding Village residents taking revenge for the outbreak of AIDS in their village. Ding Hui is blamed for the demise of the village as he was the largest blood merchant, arranging blood donations from the impoverished for cash payments from the Government (obviously with a nice little retainer being kept by the merchant).
Unclean practices, an unregulated approach and a hankering for wealth brings a whole district into the depths of an AIDS epidemic. We have self-imposed quarantine, love affairs between sufferers, ignorance of the “fever”, elaborate Chinese weddings and funerals,, a hope for a brighter future all set to the passing of the seasons and the backdrop of failing crops, drought, land clearing and more. However the deeper sub plot here is the rapid movement of the Chinese bureaucracy into capitalist mayhem:
The government would have to do something for the people of Ding Village. It couldn’t just ignore them, It couldn’t stay silent, blindly doing nothing.
Because who ever heard of a government that saw and heard nothing, said and did nothing, took no action and showed no concern?
This is a tragic tale of a community left alone to suffer the horrific consequences of a corrupt and uncaring bureaucracy, a bleak glimpse into how a tragic disease can be brought upon uneducated peoples, how even in death corruption can continue (SPOLIER, this sentence only - the blood merchant moves to trading coffins, then selling wedding licences for people long deceased so they can be accompanied in the afterlife). The demise of the village progresses at such a rapid pace because of simple activities perpetrated by ignorant local power hungry officials , like the agreement to allow the felling of trees to make coffins:
The trees of Ding Village disappeared overnight.
All the mature trees were gone. At first, it seems, there had been some discussion about only felling trees of a certain size, those with trunks as broad as a bucket, say. But when morning came, the villagers woke to find that even the smallest trees in and around the village were gone. Anything that had a trunk the size of the circumference of a bowl had been chopped down for timber. Discarded notices from the village party committee littered the streets like fallen leaves after a windy evening. The spring sun shone warm as usual, but without foliage or the shade of the trees, the village felt scorching and unpleasant.
This is not an pleasant read with it’s dark themes and obviously tragic heart but at the same time it is not a difficult read and personally I thought some of the lighter references could have been omitted with some of the caustic scathing sections beefed up a little. I don’t want to be misunderstood here, as to write such a bold novel about such a tragic event about a government not known for their liberal allowance of criticism is a noble feat in itself. It is just a pity it took five years to be translated into English. Not my favourite from this list so far but again a worthy inclusion on any reading list.