Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie
PQ2664 D132B 2001 Central Library
The Cultural Revolution has always simply been to me a significant and grandiose part of China’s history. The details elude me and the urge to find out more is nonexistent. I picked up a copy of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress because of its intriguing title and was pleasantly surprised at what an engaging read it was.
Dai introduces the reader to a Cultural Revolution that is seen from the eyes of the very people afflicted and through them, challenges us to care about people in another time and place and to appreciate the many freedoms that we enjoy.
The story revolves around the narrator and his friend, Luo, and their “re-education’ in the mountains at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Their parents, being doctors and dentists respectively, have been deemed “enemies of the people” and the boys’ hopes of ever leaving the mountain seem slim at best.
In this dreary setting where the reader fully expects to read about depressed souls and defeated minds, Dai uplifts us by detailing the little victories the boys have everyday. They outwit the villagers through the use of “technology” (i.e., an alarm clock!), they enthrall them with stories, they bribe the headman by playing dentist; you end up laughing at their antics and applauding their acts of subversion. Their grim settings are further brightened by a beautiful neighboring seamstress as well as the discovery of a suitcase of forbidden European literature.
Dai’s conclusion is however ambivalent. He clearly disapproves of and ridicules the senseless censorship of scientific and “Westernized” knowledge but he also warns of the price to be paid should the reverse be true. With knowledge comes the freedom to choose and he cautions that we will have to live with these choices, whether good or bad.
A thought-provoking and quick read; go for it!