Book Review – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Sijie, Dai
Anchor, 2001

Having just finished reading To the Storm I was in a mood to keep with the Cultural Revolution theme, and this was the book which came to hand.

Unlike To the Storm, this book ignores all the issues behind the Cultural Revolution and simply uses it as a backdrop for the story. Put simply, two friends come across two special things – a cache of forbidden books, and the affections of a beautiful young woman. When they bring them together everything looks like it will work out to everyone’s favor, until a chain of events disrupts them all.

Such a simple summary does not do the book justice, but that is about it for the plot. The beauty of this book is in the telling of the story. Using the social situation of the time to set a stage, the story sees the friends embark essentially upon an adventure of knights errant. There are allusions to the day to day drudgery of being the village’s conscripted labor, but these are used more as a mechanism to separate themes than to detail the hardships of the “re-education” period.

The flow starts with the introduction of the two city youths to the remote village and sets the stage for being given a relatively large amount of freedom during their stay. They then befriend another youth in a similar situation in the next village as well as encounter the local tailor’s daughter, who gives them a warm reception. They eventually come to realize that their new friend has somehow managed to bring a suitcase full of books with him, and with books being forbidden and something they miss, they keep pressing on him to give them one. At last he agrees, and they obtain a copy which they devour and determine to share with the tailor’s daughter who, living in a remote village and having had very little formal education, had never experienced the concept of literature.

Once set on this course, they carry out their self-given mission to open her eyes to Balzac, and in the process they become very close – one her boyfriend and first lover, the other her close friend and companion. They secure additional books, and gradually the tailor’s daughter gains an appreciation for literature and through that the concept of individuality. One morning she suddenly informs her father that she is leaving, and on hearing that she hasn’t told them he goes off and finds them in their village. The two friends chase after her and eventually catch up at the cemetery where she has stopped to bid farewell to her ancestors before departing. In the ensuing discussion they find out she has absorbed far more than they expected from their literary excursions together and is no longer satisfied to be the tailor’s daughter in a remote village. Frustrated, they hold their own book-burning after she departs.

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