I’m posting this today, as opposed to a usual Tuesday post, because today is World AIDS Day.
It’s funny that most of the literature translated from Chinese for the West is promoted as being banned in China, as though reading something banned by a dictatorship is some kind of protest, some kind of “Fuck you” to the Chinese government. Fortunately, the phrase “banned in China” is not plastered across this novel, which bodes well for me. Perhaps Yan has written a novel that stands on its own two feet, a novel that doesn’t have to rely on the fact that it has upset the easily offended General Administration of Press and Publication to sell some copies.
A young boy, recently deceased, recounts to us the tale of his village in Henan Province, China, where there has been an unfortunate outbreak of AIDS. He tells us of his surviving family members, as well as the other villagers, and how they deal with the way this horrific incident occurred, and how they must deal with it every day for the rest of their lives. From his young Uncle who has fallen in love with the wrong woman; to his father, who has dreams of making it big in the Party; to his Grandpa, who cannot keep up; this is a novel of people under pressure.
There’s so much going on in Dream of Ding Village that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel so multi-layered, so multi-faceted, so deep. But perhaps the most disturbing realisation arising from this novel is the fact that it is based on a true incident – AIDS spreading through Henan Province due to some horrifically lack standards when it came to blood donation, particularly since it was a cash cow for poor people looking to make some quick and easy money. Why wouldn’t you trust a government agency looking to give you money simply for the occasional collection of blood, which is easily replaceable?
AIDS looms large in this novel, though it is only mentioned by its proper name a handful of times. The physical manifestations of “the fever” are viscerally and vividly described by Yan, and the way in which it wreaks havoc upon the human body has never been more clear in my own mind. The descriptions of tired, battered, pustule-filled bodies throughout the book again and again invite you to realise just how terrible this disease truly is. There are some sex scenes that are deeply uncomfortable, probably more so for those taking part than the reader, and it is in scenes like this, where the physicality of the human body is so intimately and clearly expressed, that you realise just what a truly great writer Yan is.
Arguably the greatest strength of Dream of Ding Village is that, tonally, it manages to remain light, and in some places, humorous. This is not to say Yan does not take his subject matter seriously – but I think it would be easy for a novelist to simply look at the theme, and simply say “I’m going to write the most depressing novel ever.” It is to Yan’s credit that he manages to find the humanity in the victims of these horrible circumstances, and it is the human moments that make this novel what it is. Whether it be two people realising they love each other, despite being fully aware they have only months to live; or an old man wandering the school he has looked after for so many years,
The allegorical nature of the novel needs to be addressed, too. This is not just a novel about AIDS, and the way people deal with such a brutal disease. This is a damning indictment of the shift in modern Chinese society, and the way people are now more willing than ever to do whatever it takes to make a buck, and to get rich quick. This is nowhere more clear than in the relationship between Grandpa and Ding Hui, the narrator’s father. It’s hard not to hate Ding Hui – his seemingly inability to see beyond his own bank balance and ambition, and realise that he is hurting the people around him – not just emotionally, but physically, too. He eats up the scenery each and every time he’s on the page, and every time he manages to weasel some more blood out of a desperate, unsuspecting friend, you want to hate him even more.
It would be easy to dismiss Yan as a traditionalist with dim views of capitalism, but I’m not so sure. Ding Hui can just as easily be read as a symbol of the faceless members of the Chinese bureaucracy, and their inability to see humanity in the face of the rules. With every glimmer of hope Hui provides, he manages to take away almost twice as much with the end result, and the closing sections, where he becomes the ultimate sell-out, are heart-breaking. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, it highlights that a ghost narrator is not just a gimmick. It’s interesting to note that Yan himself professes to self-censorship when writing his novels, though as it turns out, even with that extra step, his satirical take on the blinkered view taken by bureaucracy about the lives of people living in country China is less than kind.
There’s no one word or phrase that can define this novel: love story, political satire, clash of cultures – it’s all happening here. Yan has proved himself as a great novelist, full of ideas and themes that cry out to be discussed. His ability to create true, human characters amongst all this, though, is perhaps his greatest gift. Because without a human face, incidents such as this would be confined to the rubbish bin of history, doomed to be forgotten.