Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Two

Thursday evening, and #translationthurs has rolled around again on Twitter, so it’s time for my second round-up of books from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.  Today we’re off to the far east for a story told from beyond the grave – I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts…
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (translated by Cindy Carter)
What’s it all about?

Dream of Ding Village is a fascinating novel, set in a small Chinese village in the countryside, and narrated by a corpse.  Our deceased friend, a boy who was poisoned by angry villagers, tells us of the plight facing his hometown because of a mania for selling blood.  His father, a rather nasty, grasping entrepreneur, got rich by convincing his fellow villagers to sell their blood – and by skimping on the hygiene while he was at it.  Now, a decade on, AIDS (‘the fever’) has broken out in the Chinese provinces, and the villagers are beginning to pay the real price for their past actions…

The main character is Grandpa, also called Professor, the patriarch of the Ding family and a retired teacher of sorts.  Attempting to make up for the role his elder son played in the misfortunes of the village, he decides to house all the sick inside the school, creating a kind of commune in which those who are destined to die can live out their days in comfort.  Unfortunately, human nature proves to be too strong for community spirit to triumph over: Grandpa’s noble efforts are doomed to failure as his dream descends into selfish egotism…

The reader of Dream of Ding Village is constantly reminded of various classic tales: the post-apocalyptic feel of Camus’ The Plague; the Darwinist horror of Golding’s Lord of the Flies; the “some animals are more equal than others” turn of events at the school, reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm.  The more the story progresses though, the more it appears like a biblical reckoning, a plague sent to punish the greedy and inconsiderate.  In a society where people only care for themselves, there is nobody (except Grandpa Ding) who bothers to think about what tomorrow may bring.

The extent to which the selfish villagers will sink to is frightening.  Several attempt to cheat the group out of their share of food by putting rocks in the bags of rice and flour they are required to donate.  A local youth with the fever arranges to marry an uninfected woman from a neighbouring town, and the village is sworn to secrecy.  And the trees – don’t get me started on the trees…

Dream of Ding Village is not for the squeamish – there is a lot of talk of blood and rotting flesh -, but there are some bright spots.  The blossoming romance between Grandpa Ding’s younger son and a fellow AIDS sufferer shows that there is a positive side to the live-for-the-moment feeling which has swept the community.  On the whole, however, it is a rather bleak picture of a serious subject, one which doesn’t paint Chinese society in a favourable light.  Perhaps then it’s not that surprising that it was banned in mainland China…

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly…  It’s a good book, but I’m not sure it’s good enough to be one of the main contenders.  The translation was alright, but nothing special – the dialogue, especially, was a little stilted at times, a problem which often arises when the very different Asian forms of address are put into English.  It will depend a lot on the books I haven’t read yet, so if I like a lot of the others, this is one which will probably miss the cut.

Will it make the shortlist?
Again, possibly.  Most of what I’ve heard from other people has been positive, and I have a feeling that people would like to see a non-European book on the shortlist.  I think this may be one which will be mid-table and pushing for that final spot on the list.

Join me again on Sunday, when we will be leaving Asia and heading back to Europe.  Just a warning – it might be a bit chilly…

10 thoughts on “Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Two

  1. I think your review is spot on, Tony. I thought it was an interesting book, but I had similar reservations about the sometimes clunky translation and the story itself. So far I've only read Asian contenders for the IFFP but even so it worries me a little that there may be a hidden agenda to award the prize outside Europe to provide 'balance' rather than judge the books on their merits. For me, it's not about gender, origin, the political message or worthiness of the issue in the book, whose 'turn it is' or anything else, it's always about the book!


  2. The comparison to Camus certainly makes it sound intriguing but I'm not sure when I will read this.
    I have a problem with the mentioning of blood though…


  3. Mark – Might be, possibly… 😉

    Lisa – I've got a feeling that I'm going to like translations by British translators more anyway – which is going to seriously influence my judgement (except for the two German books, which I'll be reading in German!). And don't worry – this award won't be leaving Europe based on the three Asian books and three European books I've read so far…

    Caroline – The style is definitely not Camusian 😉

    And believe me; I felt a little woozy at times 😦


  4. Good review Tony … though I do wonder how easy it is to comment on the quality of the translation when you don't know the original. How can you tell whether the problems you see are in the translation? The one thing that bothers me about reviewing translated books is this whole issue … not only am I reading a book through my own interpretation/view of the world, but through another's interpretation of that book in the first place. I was a bit mystified about the use of italics. I wonder what they signified?


  5. Lisa – I have to say, that's not one I'm looking forward to 😦

    Gary – It's a good book, well worth reading, but this is the Premier League of translated fiction, so it may struggle to make the top six in a very competitive competition 😉

    whisperinggums – I think it's often easier to tell a poor translation than a good one (although I've just read a couple of excellent ones!). Basically, if you find yourself struggling with clumsy syntax and awkward word choice, there's a fair chance that the translator hasn't done a great job. Some people who know actually say that part of Murakami's appeal in the English-speaking world is the great job Rubin and Gabriel have done with the translations!

    As for the italics, some of it was Grandpa's dreams; I think we were supposed to be unsure about whether some of these parts really happened…


  6. I just finished this and found it rather harrowing, but a beautifully-written book. I did have a slight problem with some of the translation (dad and kids annoyed me), but I was willing to overlook that because the story is so important. The scandal of entire villages decimated by AIDS in Henen Province due to mercenary and unhygienic blood collecting practices is so utterly appalling. The fact that the Chinese government banned the book and tried to hush-up the whole thing makes me feel very angry. I would like to see the book win the IFFP, because Yan Lianke was extremely brave to tell the story.


  7. Again, this is where our views differ. It's a horrible piece of history, and it's great that the truth (or this version of it…) is getting out, but this is a prize for the best book, and I don't thing 'Dream of Ding Village' is anywhere near that.

    Many parts of this were well written, but many others were plain annoying. I think that Chinese is a very difficult language to translate into English (especially the dialogue), and particularly when I have to read it through the filter of American English…


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