Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Paperback – 2002
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"The village headman, a man about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a heart that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin." Read the first page
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The chances for these youths to return to any semblance of their former lives are slim. The main characters in this story, the unnamed narrator and his close friend Luo, wind up sharing quarters in the same remote village on the side of a mountain and they find solace in their friendship and with their love and admiration for the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. They also discover and steal a cache of French novels, literature that has been forbidden by the anti-intellectual Red Guard. Nevertheless, they immerse themselves in the literature and the stories give them hope of better times and release from the hardships of their transplanted lives. The books are also seen by Luo as the means by which he may transform the Little Chinese Seamstress into a civilized, urbane woman. The complications of love and re-education drive the plot. Of course, re-education comes to mean more than what the powers behind the Cultural Revolution intend: it includes what the two boys learn about themselves and their neighbors and, ironically, the consequences of Luo's presumption that the seamstress will benefit from his civilizing instruction based upon the French literature.
Dai Sijie's style is clean and simple. The novel is very much about story-telling, and the narrator, in retelling his experiences, provides the model for an effective narrative (without Western Post-Modern self-referential gimmickry). The character's are endearing and memorable, the settings are vivid, and the events are believable and very, very human. Highly recommended.
The journey of re-education is harsh and the villagers are untrusting of all the items the two boys bring to the village. They are allowed to keep a rooster alarm clock and a violin. The boys are sent to watch movies in a nearby town with the expectation of when they return that they would act out the movie in its entirety for the whole village.
The book is about the power of story telling and mostly about the power of the written word.
The boys meet the seamstress' daughter and both fall in love with her. Luo has a relationship with her and decides she needs to be educated to better suit him. The two boys read to her western literature and her eyes are opened to many possibilities.
The two boys and their cache of forbidden Western literature including, of course, Balzac opens their eyes to a new world. The literature proves to be a double edged sword, however, for the boys lose the one thing that was making their life bearable.
The story begins with two young men from the city arriving on Phoenix Mountain, the place they have been sent to by the Chinese government for reeducation, both guilty of being the sons of doctors. Life among the peasants is bleak, the jobs assigned to them the most menial and dangerous and there is no intellectual stimulation. Over time though two important things happen - first they meet the "little seamstress" the most beautiful and intelligent girl on the mountain, daughter of the area's tailor - and later they come into possession of a secret cache of forbidden books, all translations of western novels. At this time period, all books were banned in China except for those written by Mao and his cronies and technical manuals, the boys have never seen foreign fiction before and now they have Balzac, Flaubert, Emily Bronte, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and many others, whole new worlds to explore.
Quick to read with vivid descriptions, I will never forget the old man with the bed full of lice and jade dumplings with salty sauce. Also loved the ending, the little seamstress has absorbed all the education Luo has to give and keeps moving on the path of self discovery.
(For Westerners the lesson of the Cultural Revolution is what happens when people who have been brainwashed by a fundamentalist education are encouraged to indulge a craving for absolute power.)
Chen's book is set later in the era, when the wholesale persecution of the educated classes had quieted down and it was once more safe to study English, though with certain restrictions. The narrator is a country boy who goes to the big city to pursue a dream of studying English.
Sijie's novel is set earlier, around 1973 -- most books have been banned and burned. It is a crime to own anything not written by Mao or other communist lights. Intellectuals -- doctors, writers, professors, foreign-language speakers, scientists -- have been sent to mines and farms to suffer and often die in a torture called "re-education".
Although the formal education of the narrator and his friend in "Balzac..." consists of only three years of middle school, their parents are medical professionals, so they are branded as intellectuals. They are city boys, sent to the country to learn how to be good proletarians from a bunch of reluctantly reformed opium farmers.
The miracle of "Balzac..." is that it conveys the oppression and terror of its era without itself being oppressive.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
A wonderful little book, can be read in an afternoon. This novel is about two sophisticated young Chinese men and their adventures in reeducation and romance during the cultural... Read morePublished 20 months ago by Mrs. Colleen M. Paul
Beautifully written, I loved the characters, the setting, the feeling of being. Culture and believes thru out the book are both entertaining and surprising.Published on Dec 30 2012 by turtle65
I see this book is coupled with KITE RUNNER and the only reason I can think of for this is that it's exotic in content and involves two young men. Read morePublished on Oct. 24 2007 by Harriet
The power of books to transform the unspeakable into the sublime. Why roses can grow on a garbage heap. Read morePublished on July 4 2007 by Mary Ellen
Basically this is the story of China and the struggles that several people go through. I was reminded at times of "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Read morePublished on Sept. 22 2006 by D. Kauffman
Aside from portraying a vivid image of China during the Mao years, this novel is also a very well crafted satire (in the same league as one of my favourite novelists -Somerset... Read morePublished on March 5 2005 by Andrea
Recently I've been lucky with my bestseller or recommended picks, having read Martel's LIFE OF PI and McCrae's CHILDREN'S CORNER. Read morePublished on Feb. 15 2005 by ThomsEBynum
This translation of Dai Sijie's novel can be poetic at times but, as is common with translated works, it can leave the reader questioning the cultural context of some passages or... Read morePublished on July 14 2004 by T. Davis