November 13, 2011 by markstani
The dusk settles over a day in late autumn. The sun sets above the East Henan plain, a blood-red ball turning the earth and sky a deep shade of crimson. As red unfurls, slowly the dusk turns to evening. Autumn grows deeper; the cold more intense. The village streets are all empty and silent.
In ‘Dream Of Ding Village’ (pub. Corsair), Yan Lianke, one of China’s most pre-eminent and controversial novelists, tackles the harrowing topic of AIDS in his country’s impoverished rural regions.
Longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize, ‘Dream of Ding Village’ is as gruelling as you might expect given its subject matter. But Lianke lends it an extra dimension by employing his trademark satire and black humour to thrilling effect.
Lianke’s most famous work, Serving The People, about an affair between a red army soldier and the wife of a high-ranking Party official, was banned in his homeland and Dream Of Ding Village went the same way, accused of painting an unnecessarily bleak and alarmist picture of the epidemic afflicting millions of rural Chinese.
In fact, Lianke’s book acts as much as an allegory of the Chinese economy’s clumsy lurch towards capitalism as it does a damning indictment of a system which preaches equality but is riddled with corruption, and whose selfish clamour extends, in Lianke’s expert hands, as far as the after-life.
Dream Of Ding Village is based on the true story of an horrific period in which ruthless free-marketeers coerced villagers into selling their blood and in the process infected them with the AIDS virus, wiping out entire communities.
It is narrated by the ghost of Xiao Qiang, a young boy who has been killed by his family’s neighbours as retribution for the role of his father, the most prominent of the so-called blood-hounds, in spreading the disease.
Entirely unabashed by the mounting tragedy, the boy’s father continues to exploit the villagers, first by selling them the coffins that are meant to be given to them free by the state, then, ultimately, by convincing them to pay to marry off their dead sons and daughters so as not to leave them lonely in the after-life.
He succeeds because this is a society long since rendered hopelessly naïve by the bludgeoning force of multi-layered, single-party rule. As the villagers fall ill and prepare to die in increasing numbers, they blithely accept changes in authority based on nothing more than ownership of the village seal. Blackmail and corruption is endemic even among the stricken: one man even schemes to be buried with the seal so as to retain his authority after his death.
This blend of hard fact – Lianke is from the province of Hunan, where the scandal was at its most devastating, and spent time living with AIDS victims and corroborating their stories – and fiction, works well in such expert hands, exposing the inherent futility of a fast-changing nation’s grasp at the best of both worlds.
If Liang’s choice of narrator is a little contrived, and if the story is so devoid of hope and corrupt of morals so as to be hard going at times, it is also a remarkable and unforgettable book. Lianke’s beautiful descriptions of such a desolate landscape sustain the reader through this gut-wrenchingly sad tale, and give a voice to the victims of the hidden tragedy he has brought so brilliantly to light.