‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ by Dai Sijie

Balzac

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 172 pages; 2006. Translated from the Chinese by Ina Rilke.

Set in China in the early 1970s, this delightful story is about two teenage boys sent to the country to be ‘re-educated’ by poor peasants as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Both the narrator, the son of two doctors, and his friend Luo, the son of a famous dentist, are classified as ‘young intellectuals’ even though they have not graduated from high school. Both are banished to a mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky, where they are assigned quarters in a barn-like house on stilts in a small village.

Despite the horrific conditions in which they live and work, they manage to find solace in their shared sense of humour and their love of the local tailor’s attractive daughter, the Little Seamstress of the novel’s title.

When they accidentally stumble upon a locked suitcase containing a selection of 19th century Western literature, banned by the authorities, they resort to all kinds of schemes and trickery to get their hands on these rare, highly desirable novels by Balzac, Dickens and Dumas (amongst others).

But sadly the boys’ love of books and literature has dramatic repercussions, particularly for the Little Seamstress, that are beyond their wildest imagininings…

I quite enjoyed Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. There is a certain fable-like quality to the writing which washes over the reader like a calm, meditative blanket. It is easy to get lost in a world that is quite unfamiliar to one’s own.

It helps that the narrative voice is strong. But because the story moves along at such a brisk pace there were — for this reader at least — some annoying gaps that I felt needed to be fleshed out. I also did not like the middle section, some 10 pages, headlined The Old Miller’s Story, Luo’s Story, and The Little Seamstress’s Story, which interrupted the main narrative in an unnecessary, jarring way. (I still fail to see the point of these three short chapters.)

On the whole, however, this is a quick gorgeous read that will appeal to anyone who loves books,  believes in the recuperative power of story-telling and is interested in recent Chinese history.

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