Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)
It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky. Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years. But they were not the offspring of average parents. Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand. So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs. But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing. That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.
Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province. His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness. I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition. Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally. Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo. When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor. Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.
I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch. It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly. It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed. Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.” Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight. Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com