Monday, December 22, 2008
Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
A seventh leg of my Orbis Terrarum Book Reading journey is complete. I tried to read Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" about pre-World War II Italy, but much as I wanted to dive in, it was just not meant to be. I picked up and read the first several chapters a bunch of different times, but couldn't get into it, so I switched over to another book which had logged some time on my nightstand, Chinese-born writer Dai Sijie's novel "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (NY: Anchor Books, 2002).
This novel was a treat, being not only a book about books and reading, one of my favorite genres, but as a vividly-portrayed look at 1970s China during the harsh re-education policies of the Communist government. The heroes of this too-short novel are teenagers Luo, son of a dentist who dared mention publicly that he had worked on the teeth of Chairman Mao, and his unnamed chum, the son of two medical doctors, who are branded "intellectuals" after their extensive middle school education and banished to a remote mountain farm village. There they live in an unheated agricultural storage building and spend their days hauling baskets of excrement up the mountainsides to fertilize distant fields of opium.
Our young heroes do not know if they will ever be allowed to return to their families in the big city of Chengdu, but find sparks of hope for a way out of their dreary lives when the Village leader discovers their talent for storytelling. They are also allowed a bit of freedom to travel to infrequent movie showings at the nearest market town so as to relate the embroidered plots to their villagers at a later date. It is during these visits that they make the acquaintance of a tailor's daughter, the little Chinese seamstress of the title, and reunite with another teenaged friend from Chengdu, Four-Eyes, whose poet-mother smuggled in a secret suitcase of books, including prized novels by Balzac.
Sijie himself was "re-educated" during the 1970s and left China a decade later for France, where he has since worked as a writer and filmmaker. The imagery in the book is very cinematic and visual, and I could imagine a bird's sweeping view of the mountainous landscape and steep pathways that pepper the book.
I would highly recommend this book to other readers, particularly those who enjoy a bit of history woven into their fiction. Images from the book have stayed with me and I find myself thinking about the symbolism of the red-beaked crows that watch over our protagonists and of the crazy home dentistry scenes in another chapter.
I have read two more books for this 2008 reading challenge (9 books by nine authors from 9 different countries in nine months), and am hoping to bang out two more reviews about them to meet the end of the year deadline, so stay tuned.