At the height of Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for "re-education." The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin--as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.
Because their parents are educated professionals, they are punished and separated from a life of intellectual stimulation. Until they discover a young man called four eyes who has a forbidden stash of books hidden in a suitcase. And, paradoxically on a remote slippery, lice infested mountain, high up in the air, surrounded by peasants who have not experienced the outside world, they discover the power of the written word and they become educated.
Befriending a beautiful young woman whose father is the revered village tailor, both men are drawn to her spirit and physical presence. As they read to her, she envisions a life entirely different from the one she knows.
This is a beautiful, thought-provoking book with many themes, including the power of friendship, of love, of the human spirit and of the mighty power of written words.
Three young people are transformed and, like the buttons, threads and shiny materials used to fashion new clothes, the patterns can change and the desired end might not be what is envisioned.
"We were not the first to bemused as guinea pigs in this grand human experiment, nor would we be the last. It was in early 1971 that we arrived at that village in a lost corner of the mountains, and that I played the violin for the headman. Compared with others we were not too badly off. Millions of young people had gone on before us, and millions would follow. But there was a certain irony about our situation, as neither Luo or I were high school graduates. We had not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education. When we were sent off to the mountains as young intellectuals we had only had the statutory three years of lower middle school"
However, although these boys are not highly educated, they are in fact clever, and even better than that, they are talented at thinking on their feet. The isolation of the village works in their favor as they discover that a talent that seems useless for a work camp can, in fact, get them out of work.
"The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers - more's the pity. The only man who truly appreciated his gift, to the point of rewarding him generously, was the headman of our village, the last of the lordly devotees of narrative eloquence. Phoenix mountain was so remote from civilization that most of the inhabitants had never had the opportunity of seeing a film, let alone visit a cinema."
The closest city is the small town of Yong Jing, which is two days travel away on foot. It is here that the headman decides to send the two boys so that they can watch the latest movie and then come back and perform it for the village. The catch is that the reenactment has to be the exact same length as the actual movie. It is in Yong Jing that the two boys meet "the Little Seamstress for the first time. She is the beautiful but uncultured daughter of the only tailor on the mountain. When the two boys discover a hidden suitcase in the room of a friend who has also been sent for re-education to a nearby village, they eventually learn that the suitcase contains treasure beyond price - banned books.
Now the stage is set for a story that is utterly delightful, much like Animal Farm or City of Thieves, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Deceptively short at just 184 pages, this book is full of symbolism and hidden meanings. It's a book about the love of books and of stories, but pay careful attention because the books that they are reading also play a role in the plot - if you are not familiar with the stories that are mentioned, it is worth your time and effort to dig a little deeper and look them up.
"Did Four-Eyes stop to think about which book he would lend us? Or was it a random choice? Perhaps he picked it simply because, of all the treasures in his precious suitcase, it was the thinnest book, and the most decrepit. Did he have ulterior motives which we could not fathom? Whatever his reasons, his choice was to have a profound effect on ours lives. The slim little volume was entitled Ursule Miriuët. Luo started reading the book the very same night that Four-Eyes lent it to us, and reached the end at dawn, when he put out the oil lamp and passed the book to me. I stayed in bed until nightfall, without food, completely wrapped up in the French story of love and miracles. Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism. Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me."
In due course, the two boys discover that another boy who was sent to a nearby village for reeducation has forbidden western literature in his possession. The two friends are willing to do nearly anything to obtain the books and read them. The magical part of the story is the transformation that occurs, first in the boys, when they read the books, then in others when they are told the stories the boys have read. The greatest transformation occurs in the little seamstress, who becomes more and more sophisticated and ultimately leaves the village to try her luck in the city.
The closing line of the book is quite powerful. As the little seamstress is leaving the two friends: "She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."
The author was himself a re-educated youth, so he writes from personal experience. The story is told in first person by one of the young men. The pair reminded me a little bit of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their ability to out-wit their elders while maintaining an aura of innocence. The harshness of the conditions these youths faced is conveyed with irony and cynicism. I think it drew more sympathy from me than an angry or self-pitying voice would have done. The book will appeal to readers who like books about books, historical fiction, books by international writers, and books in translation. It would be a great reading choice for a book group.
It's not one of those "oh look how china suppresses western culture" books. Nor is it a "oh look banning books is bad" book. It's a story about how books effect one's life. How they seep into one's soul and messes around with your inner workings. It's a story about how protective people are about their stories. How stories surround you. You are a story. And that even the smallest phrase has some sort of meaning to someone.
Ideas are dangerous. Books are dangerous. And this small one puts into words why.
I don't know anything about Mao's "re-education" of the city children/young adults in the late 1960s - early 1970s. This little peek into history (current and past) was something unexpected. I wasn't prepared to want to know the details about Mao's rule and his stipulations on what can and cannot be seen/read/listened. It also reminds us as readers how bourgeois reading still is. It's still a privilege to people to have the luxury time to read. To have the means to go and get a book to peruse. To choose one book over another.
Sijie shows us how one book by Balzac changed two boys' lives. This book cemented into them this desire to read more. So I ask you, what was that one book that you read that made you want to continue reading. What was your first book you remember? What was that book you read in high school that made you want to go looking in the library for something new? What was the book that the other people made fun of you about because you spent your free time reading when they were outside playing? What stories will you pass on to your children? To your neighbors? To strangers? Why do we chose these stories and not others?
What books would you burn so they can stop affecting you so much?
This is the basic premise of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated from the French by Ina Rilke. The book is slight, a quick read at just under 200 pages. The story is light-hearted, the boys face neither serious danger nor serious consequences though they constantly push against the authority they live under. The characters are well-drawn, fully believable people. The setting is well described The plot keeps the reader moving along at an entertaining clip.
I just didn't like it.
Maybe it reminded me too much of what I didn't like about City of Thieves which is also about two young men basically having a rollicking adventure in the midst of terrible tragedy. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was picked by my book club which has been picking very safe reading lately. I keep thinking of Franz Kafka as quoted on Gautami Tripaty's blog, "We ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us." Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress neither wounds nor stabs. A book set during China's Cultural Revolution ought to do both.
I grew so tired of the rich kid protagonists and their cultural superiority, their clear sense that they were better than everyone in the village, that by the end of the book, I was beginning to root for the Cultural Revolution a bit. I'm not rooting for the Cultural Revolution, not at all, but when do we get the story of those villagers? What was it like for the peasants who spent tens, maybe hundreds of generations in isolated poverty while the world grew rich around them. What was it like to suddenly see a violin in middle-age when you'd never seen anything like it before? I'm looking for the Chinese writer who'll give voice to those villagers, write their version of The White Tiger. I bet that book would wound and stab.
The first three-quarters of the novel offers up, essentially, a love letter to youth, to forbidden love -- of both literature and women -- and to the individual. It is, in many ways, a coming-of-age novel -- though the figure who truly comes of age here isn't necessarily the one you expect -- and the story is touched with nostalgia even when it describes hardship.
It isn't until almost the very end that the wonderful balance of the book starts to disintegrate. Were I still in grad school, I might argue that the break down is intentional -- and indeed it might be. Dai Sijie inserts three seemingly random interludes toward the end that describe a scene of emotional significance; while the grad student in me wants to see these passages as homages to the poetic interjections of ancient Chinese novelists, for the leisure reader the effect is jarring. Each interlude breaks away a piece of the spell that the reader has been happily wandering in the midst of for most of the book. When the narrative resumes, the gloss is lost and nothing quite feels the same.
Again, it could be a crafted point -- the end of the novel, which I will not reveal here, is not a fairy-tale ending (though it is symbolically satisfying), so perhaps it is for the best that the golden light in which the first portion of the story basked is gone, in order for the reader to appreciate what is happening more clearly. Still, I think I would have liked the ending more had I not lost the connection that had sustained my interest and appreciation for the bulk of the book.
I say "bulk of the book", but in truth there is no bulk to speak of. This is a slim, swift story, barely a novel at all, and its size and pace invite a quick reading, but perhaps I would have been better off to slow down and savor each piece of the story carefully. That might have insulated me from the effect of the interludes, but one only perceives such things in hindsight. With things as they stand, I can only offer this warning for future readers: enjoy this book more slowly than you want to, and prepare to be frustrated near the end.
Sijie’s story is charming and at its best when Luo and the narrator carry out their antics. I was sorry to see them come to an end when Luo discovered something more than brotherly love.
The boys make an acquaintance in a neighboring village who is also a victim of the "reeducation" process. The boys suspect that he is harboring a dangerous secret and soon discover that he has contraband hidden in a suitcase. Yep, you guessed it -- he has books. All literature, especially western literature was banned during this period. The only approved reading material was books by Chairman Mao and his followers. The boys finally persuade their friend to let them borrow some books, which they devour. In addition to Balzac, they have books by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and Romain Rolland. These books open the boys' eyes to a new world. Even though they had lived in the city, they were very naive and knew little of the ways of the world, especially when it came to women and sex.
Luo is smitten with the daughter of a tailor in one of the villages on the mountain and begins daily visits to read to her from Balzac. He is trying to impress her, and he also feels that he is doing her a favor by educating her, as well. They have a brief, albeit intense romance. I won't go into more detail here for fear of ruining the story. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn't love it the way I thought I would. I enjoyed learning a little more about the Chinese culture during this period in addition to the literary references.
Set during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the book is largely a story of the power of storytelling. T wo teenage boys have been sent to live in the country (their parents are class enemies) on a mountain known as Phoenix in the Sky. Told mostly from the point of view of one of the boys (although this changes toward the end), it is the story of how in the midst of carrying buckets filled with excrement on slippery trails, they find a stash of books owned by another boy there for re-education, Four Eyes. They make a deal with him and get a copy of a Balzac novel, and things change. Through Balzac, they discover things somewhat alien to their environment -- "awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love..." (57). One of the boys, Luo, falls in love with the nameless Little Seamstress, daughter of the local tailor, and together they plot to steal the entire suitcase stash of Four Eyes' books. But that decision is costly, and makes the reader contemplate the entire meaning of "re-education."
A phenomenal story, the author delivers on many levels, so even though it's a short book, there's a lot to consider between the covers. Highly recommended.
Ultimately it is hard to say whether matters are as satisfyingly concluded as the author feels - clearly we are meant to observe that the worlds of the young players and their magical reading material have converged - but no matter. This (for the most part) adolescents view of a tumultuous time is told with fine wit and candour. Highly recommended.
Mostly fun and adventurious and really coming-of-age in where the narrator acquired some painful maturity.
I liked this book. Very readable.