Book World: Lionel Shriver reviews Yan Lianke's 'Dream of Ding Village'

The cover of
The cover of "Dream of Ding Village."
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By Lionel Shriver
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:32 AM

Formerly a poor peasant from Henan province, Yan Lianke is a widely translated author based in Beijing and the winner of major Chinese literary awards. Yet two previous novels of his, "Xia Riluo" and "Serve the People!," have been banned by the Communist Party. Yan claims that he deliberately played down his implicit criticism of the upper echelons in "Dream of Ding Village," but when the novel was first published in Hong Kong in 2006, his efforts to slip past the censors proved to be in vain, and this book was also banned.

"Dream of Ding Village" is now available in the United States in an agreeably readable translation by Cindy Carter. Unfortunately, the nonfiction story that inspired it beats this novel hands down. Yan's intentions are laudable. He based the book on a scandal in his home province, where villagers were urged to sell their blood, unaware that the plasma with which they were injected to prevent anemia was contaminated with HIV. Ten years on, whole villages were wiped out.

The novel focuses on one village, where the son of its leading family, Ding Hui, champions the sale of blood as an easy path to prosperity, pocketing a share of the proceeds for himself. This first section is successfully ghoulish, as villagers bleed themselves dizzy in order to afford larger houses and electrical appliances: "Throughout the village, blood-filled plastic tubing hung like vines, and bottles of plasma like plump red grapes."

But then the villagers begin to come down with "the fever": "If you hadn't seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn't ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead." The schoolhouse, run by Ding Hui's father, is soon converted to a hospice. Yet widespread mortality provides another commercial opportunity for the enterprising Ding Hui, who makes more money selling the villagers fancy government coffins. Indeed, coffins are in such demand that soon the countryside is denuded of trees. Finally, Ding Hui makes more money still as a matchmaker for the dead, marrying the younger AIDS victims posthumously to one another so they won't be lonely in the afterlife.

What's wrong with this picture? Somehow, it is not sufficient to sustain the novel. Though multiple subplots fill out the book, they feel like padding.

The "Lovely Bones" approach of telling the story in the first person - from the perspective of Ding Hui's dead 12-year-old son - does not pay off. No back story emerges to justify the device, which thus seems arbitrary, decorative and sentimental.

Literary tastes vary from culture to culture. Nevertheless, for a Western sensibility, much of Yan's imagery is overwrought, his language too juiced up; given the subject matter, the sun should shine like "a blood-red ball" only once. Indeed, the text is littered with so many metaphors that they feel compulsive. Here are three consecutive lines: "Genzhu's words had hit him like a rock to the side of the head, leaving him dazed and speechless. He felt like the young man had asked to touch his cheek, then slapped him across the face. Grandpa's face was pale as a late-December moon, his mind as empty as the schoolyard, as barren as the plain."

This "like"- and "as"-riddled prose is strangely exhausting - and clunky when the metaphors don't work: "the bridge of her nose as straight and tall as a chopstick standing at attention." (When does a chopstick stand at attention?) More painful still: "She rose to his desire, embracing his lust like the tender young grass on the plain welcomes the warmth of spring." Or, "Genzhu's smile grew as thick as tree bark. It seemed too heavy for his face, like it might peel away at any moment."

Worst of all, there are no real characters in the rounded Western sense of that term. Ding Hui is a stick figure of avarice; Grandpa is a totem of the old ways, a mere vehicle for dismay. The larger real-life story may be tragic, but the reader feels little when these fictional characters die.

Yan is clearly making a statement about the personal and spiritual prices paid for China's runaway development. Yet he undermines one of his better allegorical images - a coffin lavishly decorated with grand Chinese cityscapes as well as washers, dryers and refrigerators - by repeating the same engravings on another coffin later in the book. More broadly, the author's trademark absurdity suffers from the real story's grand-scale ghastliness. There's too little space between the would-be outsize plot and what actually happened.

You're bound to read elsewhere that this is a good book. Outraged by Chinese censorship, many Western critics are likely to cut Yan all manner of stylistic slack. But this is a good book only in the sense that it's virtuous. Its overarching problem is that of form: "Dream of Ding Village" is a parable, and parables should be brief. The same core plot would have made a cracking short story. Or, since Yan spent three years researching AIDS villages in Henan, it might have made a devastating work of nonfiction. But as a novel, it's repetitive, heavy-handed and flat.

Shriver's most recent novel is "So Much for That," a 2010 National Book Award finalist. Carolyn See's reviews will run monthly starting March 25.

This Sunday in Outlook

l The near assassination of Reagan.

l The globalization paradox.

l American loyalists in the Revolutionary War.

l History of a suicide.

l And the uncertain future of futurism.


By Yan Lianke

. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

Grove. 341 pp. $24.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company