fiction, review

Dream of Ding Village

A book could serve as a satirical picture or sharp allegory, especially when it has no intention to be discreet about what it is actually picturing. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, first published in English in 2011, is this very kind of book. Being said to be a biting satire on the blood-contamination scandal in Henan, it is, oddly enough, describing mostly how capitalist mentality is gradually seeping into and gnawing away at the heart of the communist China.

Once upon a time in China, in an imaginary place called Ding Village, scandalous blood contamination spread and brought about HIV epidemic. The villagers were persuaded by the government to sell their blood for a certain amount of money, and after so much disbelieving and resisting, they agreed to do as they’re told. But that was not the end of it, as procedural malpractice done by the blood merchants shadowed the running of the blood trade. More often than not, those tricky merchants—including Ding Hui, the eldest son of the village’s substitute teacher Ding Shuiyang—would use the same needles and cotton wipes for several times and drew blood more than they should in exchange for a lesser amount of money supposed to be given, leaving the villagers with an incurable fever no one knew the remedy. Through this “dirty business”, Ding Hui got rich and could afford to build a new, bigger house than those the average villagers had. That, along with the fever, triggered envy, grudge and hatred in the heart of people of Ding Village. And so, someone among them killed his little son Ding Qiang, and it was from the point of view of this boy’s ghost that the entire story unfolded: the villagers’ move to the village school to spend the rest of their lives, their forbidden love affair, their act of stealing things, and the takeover of the school by Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, those who hate Ding Hui most.

I don’t think Dream of Ding Village talks about the blood-contamination scandal happened in Henan, China, as it is described throughout the book. I believe it’s more about the moral vacuum that comes along with capitalist mentality piercing through the country. It is clearly reflected in the character of Ding Hui, the one set to be the antagonist of the story, in the way he tricks the villagers for money, in his belief that money is everything and can buy everything (including honor and dignity), and in the current conditions of big cities in that communist country—cities which have been more modern, richer, and more sophisticated. But the capitalist value sharply projected by all these features doesn’t immediately kill off the true communist character of China, of its people and government. The equal amount of food supplies for all the sick villagers and the same coffins for all the dead villagers from the government are examples of how communism still stands firmly there in spite of the rampant economic development brought by capitalism. This makes China, as described in the book, a country of stark contrast.

What made me so lost during my reading was the reason those villagers had to sell their blood. Frankly speaking, I never heard of the scandal and the book offers no explanation of why Chinese government seems so insistent that the villagers of Henan province should sell their blood. I couldn’t get deep into the story and understand the core of the issue. This book seems only to try to criticize the government’s decision to trade its people’s blood and the aftermath of the dirty business, nothing else. The narrative doesn’t help, either. It holds no appeal it needs to catch the reader’s attention amidst all the sharp criticism and satire, leaving them bored going around and around in an inconsistent pace and weak structure. It has also to be interrupted by a not-so-important forbidden-love story, which is, ironically, more interesting than what the writer intends to put forward. What’s worse, the entire story is told from a twelve-year-old child’s point of view. I know a boy at that age is not that innocent (he might have known about sex and all), but I don’t think he’s already that mature to know or understand adults’ way of thinking, their evil minds, their schemes, their hatred, their anger as he is not supposed to only serve as an observer, but also a narrator who tells the tale, who understands all the details. The only good thing about this book is its ending—it’s shocking, it’s unbelievable, and yet it surprisingly feels right.

In conclusion, Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke just didn’t work for me. I might have liked it if it gave me even a little explanation of the issue, or provided me with a captivating narrative that could make me forget about the issue.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

Two Caravans

Capitalism and communism will always be warring in silence, though sometimes it’s too obvious to remain subtle, and we will always find ourselves taking the capitalist side. It is its promise of prosperity and luxury that makes it successfully invasive, spreading and gnawing away at the world inside out, demanding the evil of us in return for the money it generously hands us. Sometimes, it does not only demand our evil side of self, but also our suffering and sacrifice. This is what is reflected in the novel Two Caravans. Set in the capitalist England, and imaginary Ukraine at times, this second book of Marina Lewycka still, in the tradition of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, talks about how attractive money can be and how a rich, prosperous country will never lose its magnetic features.

Two Caravans is a comedy about some immigrants, seemingly illegal, running to England in search of a better life. Tricked by an evil, greedy agent, Irina, Andriy, Vitaly, Emmanuel, Marta, Yola, Tommaz, and two Chinese girls coming from two different countries (China and Malaysia) have to settle for an underpaid strawberry-picking job while they’re dreaming of earning big money. And that’s only for starters. They also have to willingly surrender their lives to the agent controlling their fate and sucking them dry, get their wages cut for many deductions. They run, needless to say, but they cannot run away from the challenges and problems of being illegal immigrants. They’re separated, desperate, almost getting caught, and running all the times like wanted prisoners. And all the while, Irina and Andriy must also bear the inevitably sparking love between them, love that seems to be hindered by their opposite viewpoints on their home country, Ukraine, which has turned its back on them with arms wide open to communism.

All the characters appear in Two Caravans are people desperate enough about their future to leave their home to pursue what a rich capitalist country has to offer, even those who hate capitalism. They all have the same dream, the same aim: money and prosperity, despite the different backgrounds and cultures. And Lewycka has successfully described their each characterization in vivid clarity, without leaving behind a single detail of what they think of, how they behave, and even how they talk in awkward English. There are also several more characters in the novel, but Lewycka doesn’t seem to have difficulty in portraying them all, and in a rudely hilarious way, too. What’s so bothering is, unfortunately, the evil character which is supposed to be the prime attraction. His characterization is somehow over the top, however still funny it may seem, and devilishly annoying to read.

The whole point of this book is, obviously, how we are caught in the middle of capitalism and communism, showcasing mostly how people struggle for prosperity in the land of capitalists, and what communism has caused us to suffer. It’s like there is no way out. Living in capitalism makes you act like zombies, while staying in communism only gives you starvation. Capitalism can promise you many things, anything you want, but you have to pay it with your blood, with your being a robot doing what people tell you to and, more often than not, without considering the consequences. People are running away from communism, but at what cost? It’s not only competition we have to deal with in a capitalist world, but the loss of our nature as human beings, too. Both capitalism and communism have their own negative aspects, although people think it is communism which is more dangerous to human kind.

Marina Lewycka, once again, succeeds in presenting to us all those things above in her hilarious, light comedy. She consistently refuses to use a heavy, serious narrative in speaking out her mind, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not serious at all. She implies her stern opinion by way of a painfully laughable comical story, with a complicated yet compact plot interesting enough to make me bear 1/3 of the book, which is quite boring. Thankfully, the bumpy road all the characters have to take along the rest of the book helps me enjoy it immensely. The surprises and quirky tension lacing almost every funny scene also assist the story to heighten up its great impression. Some scenes are too silly and slapstick sometimes, but I’ve learned that it’s been Lewycka’s typical characteristic in writing. I can’t complain. And she never cares to use such a beautiful, intricate language, either.  She doesn’t need to, because what she wants to say is naturally supposed to be expressed in satirically literal sentences, just the way they are. Two Caravans is indubitably a nice work of literary composition, inviting you to laugh at the world with its laughable story.

So, all things considered, I’d like to recommend this book to anyone who has a particular interest in issues of the world, but may want to spare themselves from the trouble of reading something heavy and depressing. Two Caravans is very enlightening, smart, funny, intriguing, thoughtful, and delivering its message in a subtle yet poignant way.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Capitalism never seems funnier in Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a work of comedy fiction which tells much of the magnetic power of money. Set in today’s England, the novel hilariously, yet painfully, concedes that prosperity will always and only be owned by a powerful country, where money is circling. It surely is not an epic saga about the Cold War, but it presents to us the bitter, complicated fact of the silently warring ideologies all the same, namely capitalism and communism. In comically satirical tone, Lewycka tries to point out fairly what is wrong with both, and how twisting ourselves free of them is impossible.

Upon her mother’s death, Nadezhda receives a call from her father and being told that he is going to get married, again, to a much younger woman. Being in his 80s, the news doesn’t seem to make sense and comes as a shock to Nadezhda, who dearly loves her mother. But Mr. Mayevskyj, a now British citizen who has managed to run away from Stalin’s communist regime gripping the former Russia, stubbornly believes that only he can save the younger woman from the harshness of life in Ukraine after the collapse of the biggest communist nation in the world and insists to play a hero. Valentina, the 36-year-old beautiful woman with enormous boobs Mr. Mayevskyj intends to marry, is apparently in dire need of a British passport and work permit so she can get out of Ukraine permanently with his teenage son. Faintly, Nadezhda can smell Valentina’s ulterior motive and tells her sister Vera about it right away. Previously in dispute over their mother’s legacy, they are then reconciled and set to work together to drive Valentina out of their father’s house for, somehow, they know Valentina will only suck their father dry to get the prosperous life capitalism has to offer.

None of the characters here are portrayed as protagonists, nor any of them are the antagonist. Nadezhda, the narrator, may be the good one, loving and caring for her mother before her death, attentively caring for a very old father with an ongoing project on the history of tractors in Ukrainian, but we cannot let go of her weaknesses. And while Vera seems to be wicked and sly, she is a woman who’s willing to do everything for her family. But most of the time, Valentina is the one who gets my sole attention. Her role may seem small and evil in its very basic sense, but, to my way of thinking, Valentina is the epitome of a capitalist ideologue, having been the “victim” of communism, and therefore the motor of the whole story.

I can say A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is basically built on the unpleasant fact that, when it comes to money, people are completely willing to do everything, even the unthinkable. Wherever money goes, they sure as rain will absent-mindedly follow it. Capitalism has it all, prosperity, luxury, life guarantee, and that’s where money lives and breeds. However, capitalism also demands the evil of you, or you won’t survive otherwise. This is what is embodied in the character of Valentina, in all of us, to say the least. The whole story of this book drives home to me the unrelenting gory power of money, without putting aside the dictatorship and brutality of communism. Lewycka doesn’t take sides in writing this story, instead, she puts everything in balance. She doesn’t feel that she needs to give some resolution, because there is no exact resolution for it, but she makes it obvious that the hunger for money is the core problem of everyone.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is written in a comical, satirical way, a true comedy in its nature. Nevertheless, much as it is critical of the ideologies anchoring around our necks, it doesn’t try to be cynical nor sarcastic. The way Lewycka narrates it is not necessarily extraordinary, but still stinging to the bone. It is a light story, I would say, and hilariously funny, but it also forces us to laugh at the undeniable nature of ourselves (human beings) and the way of the world. The characters described by Lewycka are so natural, too, depicting the way we are in real life. Lewycka also makes fun of how Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK linguistically mess up the standard English pronunciation, which is a little bit quirky. The only problem about this book is, ironically, its jokes. They are just too much and too slapstick to my taste sometimes.

At the end, I would say that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the sort of general fiction I’ve always been looking for. You don’t have to be too serious to deliver some issues in a book and successful in it. And Marina Lewycka has proven it with this novel. So, I highly recommend it, either for your joy or kindling your empathy.

Rating: 4/5