Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: historical fiction (semi-autobiographical)
Length: 197 pages
Published: 2000 (in French, 2002 English)
Source: personal collection
Reason for Reading: It was in my personal collection and my online book club (Rory’s Book Club) was reading it.
Summary (from book jacket):
At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin–as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.
But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.
My Thoughts (about the book in general): In general, I felt rather indifferent towards this book. I didn’t find anything to be overwhelmingly amazing and interesting, nor horribly boring and pathetic. While I found the setting–both time and place–interesting, I didn’t feel like I got much out of the story that would be educational. Yeah, I know that just because it was set in a tumultuous time, that doesn’t mean it has to have a tumultuous story.
Part III Thoughts (for RBC discussion located here)(SPOILERS):
(Here is my post about Parts I & II)
When Dai mentioned those authors’ names, I first thought, “Why so many French writers?” Upon thinking it over, it’s possible that these were authors Dai might have read around the time of his own re-education. I mean, be did move to France after he left Communist China. So I’m thinking there are two possibilities: either Dai read these authors when they were forbidden and they made him choose to live in France or he picked French writers because he moved to France.
I am left a little unfulfilled in the respect that I never learned what the narrators name was. He even described the “three figures representing the three Chinese characters constituting my name.” These were a galloping horse, a pointed sword, and a bell with lots of strokes around it. I suppose I could try to figure it out by Googling these descriptions 🙂 But why did he never say? So many chances to tell, but never did.
“It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children.” (p130)
^^^I just found this to be pretty funny 🙂
The random chapters narrated by the miller, Luo, and the Little Seamstress I didn’t enjoy very much. I felt they were out of place with the rest of the story, especially because there wasn’t really any significance to the change of voice. Nothing special happened in these chapters to make the narrative switch necessary. Just another somewhat odd question I have (like the narrator’s name).
I was pretty sure that the narrator and the LS were going to betray Luo’s trust. I was thinking of the love triangle in the movie Pearl Harbor where one guy leaves and his best friend moves in on the girl (although in the movie, they thought he was dead, so it was a legit switch). There were lots of clues I saw to that effect. But I was wrong. This didn’t happen, at all. Although I hadn’t really foreseen the LS’s pregnancy. And I definitely didn’t think she’d run off the way she did. I mean, I didn’t think exactly that she and Luo would end up happily ever after. But I hadn’t expected her to run away.