Saturday, March 1, 2014

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by Sijie Dai


BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS
SIJIE DAI (tr. Ina Rilke)

Anchor Books
$13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for reeducation during China's infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.

My Review: I don't, like so many others, think this book is brilliant or even particularly original. I do think it's fascinating as a cultural document of a time and a place that I know zero about and find very intriguing.

The Cultural Revolution was inconceivably vast, like everything else about China. The notion, from whence we shall never know, that Mao had of causing all the haves to be reduced to the status of have-nots, and the resulting collapse of anything describable as culture, took so many good and worthy people from China's body politic and ground them into nothingness that it's a wonder there is a shred of history left to them.

The agonies of our narrator, the son of enemies of the people sent to a remote location for re-education, are told not shown. This is ordinary in a first-person story. But I found myself irked at the elisions this produced. The people around the narrator are one-dimensional, even his childhood friend Luo and the eponymous seamstress. The narrator's inability to see much past the grimy surface of the people in his world wore on me.

But, and this is the saving grace of the book for me, it's such a bizarre and topsy-turvy world that even their surfaces are intriguing, and the rather unexceptional story the narrator (never named) is telling shines with that exotic glistening strangeness.

This is really a book about books. The narrator, his friend Luo, and the seamstress go to great and dangerous lengths to get, read, and absorb lovingly the precious contraband books they're sure are hidden. Finding them, reading them, telling the stories contained in them to others...well, who could possibly NOT love a character who risks hideous tortures to do that?

The seamstress's final act in the book is exactly the right touch to set off the reaction that the narrator very oddly presents to us BEFORE reporting that action. Wha...?

Recommended. Oh, reservations attached to that, but really recommended!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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