With all the Great Leap Forward books I’ve been reading, I thought I’d take a break and try something contemporary. So last week I picked up Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (Grove Press, 2011), which has been listed as a finalist for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.
Several weeks ago I read and enjoyed Yan’s novel, Serve the People (Grove Press, 2008). What stood out in both these novels was Yan’s ability to depict love stories in times of crisis. Serve the People takes place during the Cultural Revolution while Dream of Ding Village is set in the present. But Dream could have been written about the Great Leap Forward. The story is a present day version of the helplessness from back then.
The narrator is Ding Qiang, a deceased 12 year old boy from rural Henan province. The boy dies after some villagers poison him to get back at his father, Ding Hui, an entrepreneur who made a fortune on the sale of his fellow villagers’ blood.
Not only does Ding Hui profit from the blood sales–which result in an HIV/AIDS epidemic–but he also intercepts the free coffins the government aims to provide villagers who die from AIDS, and sells them at a profit. Ding Hui finds yet another venture to profit off the dead. In the end, he’s risen in the government and is wealthier than anyone else in that area.
Ding Hui’s brother, simply named Uncle, contracts HIV in his thirties. His wife leaves him, so rather than suffering alone, he starts an affair with a young woman who also has HIV and is abandoned by her husband. But since Uncle and Lingling are still married to other people, the villagers frown upon their affair. They move in together and later marry. Uncle and Lingling’s relationship is my favorite part of the book.
As you can imagine, the residents of Ding Village don’t fare well. Grandpa, or Ding Shuiyang, is the hero of the story and quite a sympathetic character.
While reading Dream of Ding Village, I could picture the same scenario set some forty years earlier as cadres profited while peasants whittled away to nothing.
Yan Lianke’s books are by and large banned in China. This one is no exception.