Thursday 27 September 2018

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Finished September 14
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke

This short novel is told from the viewpoint of a young man who is one of a pair of young men who are sent to the mountains to be reeducated during China's Cultural Revolution. The narrator and his friend Luo are the only two sent to their remote village, and both are the sons of doctors. Another young man in a nearby village sometimes visits with them, and the two boys discover that he has a hidden suitcase of foreign novels.
There is a tailor in the region that travels from village to village making and mending clothes, who has a daughter that he mostly leaves at home. This young seamstress is friendly to the boys, and Luo begins to court her by reciting stories that he knows. Their village headman also enjoys their stories, and allows them to take time off work to go visit a larger town nearby where they could visit a cinema and return to recite the story of the film to the rest of the villagers. Luo has an extraordinary gift for storytelling, but at the times where illness strikes him, the narrator can also do a fairly good job. The narrator was also lucky enough to bring his violin, and he often played music, to distract them from their life as it was in the mountains.
When the boys are able to borrow one of the books from the boy in the next village, they read the book by Balzac often enough to memorize it, and the young seamstress is particularly enamored of this story.
We see the difficult work the boys must perform, the lonely life in the small mountain village, the release that they long for, and the ways they manipulate those around them to make their lives easier. It is a story of endurance, of hope, and of the power of story.
The author himself spent more than three years undergoing reeducation, and ten years after his release, emigrated to France.

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