Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: October 29th 2002
Source: Personal Copy
Between 1966 and 1976, Mao Zedong brought about the Cultural Revolution in China in an attempt to abolish all views and beliefs that did not agree with the Maoist doctrine. Progress in China after the late 1940s led to the creation of a more privileged societal class consisting of people with careers in fields such as medicine and science. Mao alleged that capitalist sentiments were returning to those involved in or influential in government activities which led to the mass persecution, harassment, and abuse of Chinese citizens. Children of people deemed enemies of the state were sent to rural villages in an effort to "reeducate" them in the ways of farming and manual labor. Author Dai Sijie was part of this reeducation movement spending three years in rural Sichuan. Sijie draws on his experience to create his semi-autobiographical debut novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Set in 1971, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two teen boys, both children of doctors, who are sent to a rural farming village named Phoenix Mountain in order to be reeducated. Luo, the son of a dentist who worked on Mao's teeth, and the narrator, the son of doctors, are quite opposite in personality with Luo being a loud, rebellious, and talented storyteller and the narrator being more reserved. Stripped of all their belongings except a violin and an alarm clock, Luo and the unnamed narrator must adjust to a life filled with coal mining, working in the rice fields, and other less than pleasant farm tasks. After a few months, the boys are sent by the head of the village to a nearby town to watch North Korean films and bring back stories, which they then retell to those in the village.
It is during one of the trips to the movies that the boys meet the Little Seamstress. Being unable to read or write, the shy seamstress quickly falls for the two city boys who visit her often, regaling her with narrative stories. Also along the way the boys meet Four Eyes, a boy from a neighboring village who possesses a contraband crate of Western literature. It is from him that Luo and the narrator come in into possession of Balzac's Ursule Mirouët. After reading the slim volume the boys begin on a path that takes them on a journey that changes everything in not only their lives but in those around them.
This short little read, more a novella than a novel, was a quick one for me. While I wasn't as blown away as I expected, I did enjoy the story enough to plow through it in about a day. Incorporating many well known authors of Western literature, such as Gogol, Flaubert, Dumas, Flaubert, and Rousseau, did add a certain quality that I found endearing. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress explores the power and influence of friendship and poses many questions for the reader to contemplate, such as the effect of a life without books. Just imagine if a group came into your home, took every book you owned, and torched them in the street right in front of you. I think it's safe to say that all of us readers would be devastated to say the least.
Now, the fast reading pace is not an indicator that Sijie's work is without flaws. While it did pique my interest in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I felt that the book downplayed the issue and lacked the emotional impact that I expected. Since Sijie uses the revolution as the basis for his entire story, he should have focused a little more on the pain, suffering, and hardships that occurred during that time period. The way the two boys were allowed to freely go back and forth between villages seemed a little unbelievable to me, although this may be due in part to the Sijie's sparse succinct writing style.
There was so much that could have been brilliant if only a little more development had occurred. When I finished I felt like I had just read only the outline of a story, and I was left wanting more. The characters could have used more development, especially the Little Seamstress who came across as very one-dimensional. I don't regret reading this one, but I can't say I would wholeheartedly recommend it unless it currently resides on your TBR shelf.