By Gwendolyn Dawson
In Yan Lianke’s novel, Dream of Ding Village, a remote, agricultural village in China suffers from an AIDS epidemic. Ten years ago, the inhabitants of Ding Village sold their blood to blood collectors to increase their wealth and improve their standard of living. While the blood sales allowed the villagers to replace their traditional mud and thatch huts with two-story houses made of brick and tile, the unclean blood collection practices infected many villagers with AIDS. This novel’s disturbing premise is based on the true story of the 1990s AIDS scandal in Henan Province.
The novel is narrated from the grave by the murdered son of Ding Village’s primary blood collector. The dead boy describes the slow and painful deaths of the AIDS-infected villagers, as well as the actions taken by the villagers in response to the calamity. Some attempt to profit from the tragedy (stealing from the sick or selling coffins, for example) while others seek to alleviate the pain of the sufferers or to bring hope to the dying. Lianke’s prose embodies a sing-song, repetitive quality reminiscent of an oral storytelling tradition, and the plight of the dying villagers is reflected and magnified by the parallel destruction of the village’s land, which suffers from drought and neglect.
Dream of Ding Village occasionally loses focus and, near the end, approaches absurdity with a complicated subplot about arranged marriages between dead people. While a tighter narrative would have increased this novel’s power, Dream of Ding Village remains a compelling portrayal of humanity’s ever-present potential for self-destruction.
Dream of Ding Village is published in the United States by Grove.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.