My mother pressed this book on me. My mother and I have always had a soft-cell literary side to our relationship. Her taste and mine don't coincide all that much, but as one might expect, the influence is there. In my younger years I would steal books from her shelves: Woolf, Forster, David Garnett and the like. She always wanted the books back. Which for a long time seemed slightly petty to me, but as I got older I began to understand. A book is more than the words written within its pages. It is a tangible memorial of the time, place, reason, mood, cares and concerns adjacent to the reading of it. Which is why, although my reading has now been compelled to come to terms with the digital word, I will always be more fond of the printed one.
Anyhow, my mother belongs to one (or several) book groups in Ipswich. Most of the books they select to read fail to impress her. I gave her Onetti, which she liked, and she passed that on to the group. They hated it. She came across Dream of Ding Village via one of her many groups and as it’s the first book she has recommended via that source, I decided I ought to read it.
I also wanted to read it because it's written by a Chinese author. For all the changes of the past thirty years, Chinese culture, if not society, still has a remote feel. There are weighty tomes about the impact of the Cultural Revolution, but the literature has yet to permeate. Lianke is credited as being a major Chinese novelist, but I'd never heard of him.
About a hundred pages into the novel I began to wish my mother hadn't recommended it. Not because it is poorly written. The style is concise, the storytelling engaging. Because the subject matter of the book, the annihilation of a village by the transmission of Aids, is truly galling. This is a visceral, shocking book, in a way that Brett Easton Ellis, for example, could never be. Aids strikes, people fall to bits, and there is no redemption. The great disease which threatened but somehow more or less bypassed Western consciousness, finds more hospitable territory in rural China, and it doesn't let up.
The book it might perhaps be compared to is The Plague. As in Camus' novel, there's a clear philosophical voice at work, narrating events. Lianke's narrator is a dead child. The world's cruelty has already done all it can, so nothing can surprise him. His even-handed tone as he describes the horrors visited on his village over the course of two years makes the events all that much harder to bear.
However, above and beyond the description of the decimation of a village, the book turns into a powerful eco-critique of capitalism. The narrator's father is one of the great amoral villains of modern literature, a man for whom the acquisition of wealth vindicates any decision he makes, no matter how inhumane. He sells coffins and dead spouses as though they are apples and pears. His reward is not merely wealth, but also status and respect. Money, or the obvious capacity to exploit others' weaknesses in order to acquire wealth, becomes an almost Kantian 'good'. Ding village is stricken by more than Aids. It is also been stricken by the unconscious stupidity of the capitalist mentality. Lianke's book is a harrowing critique of the changes occurring in his native land.
And, walking around a mutating London on a sunny Spring afternoon, a London that is cannibalising its own self in the name of commercial development, it's hard not to think that Lianke's dream is relevant to more than just China. It's relevant to everywhere where tomorrow is placed on such a high pedestal that yesterday can be instantly forgotten, its buildings and culture raised, its trees cut down, its soil turned to dust.