Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Book Review by Reverse Spins
Author: Dai Sijie
Translator: Ina Rilke
I picked this book up not knowing anything about it because I liked the cover and I am a little prejudiced; I like most things Chinese, even abhorrent stories of a virulent form of rule: communism. In fact that is what makes books of this type so good. There is always the dynamic background of the soul trying to survive against the effects of the state, trying to bring everyone down to a common denominator, to make everyone the same; dumb and listless. The spirit is quashed, the desire to strive to spiritual and intellectual heights is discouraged.
In this book, the effects of Mao's diabolical scheme and the ravages of the cultural revolution are seen in the villager's demeanor and the simplest interactions. With the advent of the cultural revolution perhaps the greatest calamity is the legitimizing of stupidity. The author has a deft touch showing this tragedy in a humorous way. The opening scene with a committee trying to decide what the violin is used for is priceless.
It's a wonderful tale of two teenage boys sent to the hinterlands to be re-educated because of the so called sins of their parents (they were smart). They learn of love (the beautiful little seamstress) and foreign literature. Many of the novels they discover are French. I don't know why but there seems to be a natural affinity between the french and Chinese. It may have to do with the way the words are pronounced in each language, how the mouth is pursed. The Chinese might find the intellectualism of the French attractive. I also think the repressive climate of a communist state might make one inclined to seek out nihilistic and slightly risque points of view.
In any event, it is a well written, poignant book. There seems to be quite a few good Chinese authors running around these days. Dai Sijie is one of them. The translation is superb. The story is semi-autobiographical and the author is also a film maker. The film of the book recently appeared at Cannes directed by him. Here are some links to the reviews:
Editor, Reverse Spins