Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

(also a motion picture)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
, first published in French in 2000 and in English in 2001, takes place during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Tse-Tong. The book, written by French filmmaker and writer, Dai Sijie, is semi-autobiographical: from 1971-1974, he was sent to Sechwan Province to be "re-educated." There, he endured hardships similar to those of his teenage protagonists, Luo and The Narrator. Because this book is written as a fable, Luo is the only character with a proper name.

Both boys are sons of doctors. During the Revolution, all universities were closed and Chinese youth who finished high school were labelled "intellectuals" and sent to farm with the peasants. Luo and the narrator live in demeaning conditions and are forced to labor long hours in a coal mine. Even worse, they are forced to haul human and animal manure up a mountain, much of it spilling on their backs.

Because of their gift for telling stories, the village headman allows them to go to town to see films for the purpose of re-telling their narrative plots. In the beginning, Luo is the better storyteller, but the narrator soon improves his skill. Together, the narrator's ability to play the violin and Luo's gift for tale and improvisation, earn them greater freedom.

On one of their trips across the mountain, they meet "the princess of Phoenix Mountain." She is the beautiful daughter of an itinerant tailor. The Little Seamstress falls for Luo, who is attracted to this lovely, but "uncivilized" girl. (p. 27)

It is during a visit to a former school chum, Four-Eyes, that the boys discover a chest of western classics. Such books have been banned as anti-Communist propaganda. The boys persuade Four Eyes to loan them Balzac's Ursule Mirouet. As they read the book, their vision of life is transformed. The narrator writes: "Picture a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heart nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideaology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of the the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me." (p. 57)

Now the plot thickens. Luo decides to read Balzac's book to The Little Seamstress, hoping to make her more cultured. He makes daily treks to the tailor's home, reading his beloved passages from the book. They become sexually involved. The narrator loves her from afar, but remains true to his friend. Both boys decide to steal the treasure of books from Four-Eyes.

Thereafter, their limited world opens to new horizons. This is especially true of the the eighteen year old narrator. Speaking for the author, he tells the reader that "he came to love Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and even Romain Rolland." It is especially the latter's four-piece masterpiece, Jean-Christophe, that resonates with him. "...Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual." (p. 110)

Is this a fable with a happy ending? This reader will not disclose a spoiler. The book, true to life, ends with many questions. And like a good fable, it teaches some lessons about love and friendship. Above all, it reinforces the power of reading to transcend time and place.

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