Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Asian (Chinese) Literature ; (184 pgs)
In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for reeducation during China's infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.(GoodReads)
During the Cultural Revolution of China's Chairman Mao Zedong, hapenning in the 1970s, re-education of the intellectuals and professionals meant sending them off to remote villages to perform hard industrial and agricultural labor. At the same time, the communists had stripped the schools of many subjects already and many of the youth only had a rudimentary education. On top of it all, the Communists had also confiscated, burnt and banned many books that did not fall in line with Mao's Communism. In this setting, two young boys are relocated to a village for re-education. There, they become friends with another young man called 'Four-Eyes,' whom they suspect is hiding a case of banned books. One of them also courts 'the Little Seamstress,' the illiterate daughter of the tailor and eventually they become lovers. Although a fairly simple plot, it is like the Los Angeles Times Book Review says "an unexpected miracle - a delicate, and often hilarious, tale."
This book definitely took me by surprise. So well crafted. Immaculate language. Clean, crisp, and even entertaining. Besides the fantastic use of language and its somewhat serious tone, what makes this book especially pleasant is the small funny incidents and humor placed randomly and unexpectedly throughout the book. It's definitely a playful story amid China's history. One part of the book in particular was really cleverly funny. When Luo, the narrator's friend, has a fear of being taken in by the Red Guards on account of playing western music on a violin, he tells the Red Guards that they are playing 'Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." EVEN Mozart thinks of Mao.
Lou is my ultimate favorite character in this book. He really drives the story the whole time. He's the one that suggests 'Four-Eyes' is hiding books in his case. He's sly, he's funny, and he's adventurous. Plus, he's the one that has a love affair with 'the Little Seamstress.' So much in the book surrounds around this character. Although, "the only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with a little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers - more's the pity." "How great Luo's talent was! He was able to electrify an audience by means of a perfectly timed voice-over, even when overcome by a violent bout of malaria."
I thought the pace and rhythm of the book really worked. It was steady and paced and there was never a dull moment. There is even a romantic element, one I didn't quite care for that much except for a scene or two in the book, nevertheless I think it adds depth to the book. If there is one favorite part about 'the Little Seamstress' to mention it would be at the very end when she says that she had learned one thing from Blazac: "that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price." I thought it was a bit hilarious. Lou spends and consumes so much of his time courting and pursuing her. He is hypnotized by her, and he uses Balzac's words to woo her. Then in the end Balzac actually hypnotizes 'the Little Seamstress' and steals her from him. A bit ironic, I feel.
I definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in foreign literature, particularly Asian literature. It's an exceptional read, and if there was a read to start off with in reading Chinese Literature this would be a good choice.