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Author Dai Sijie (Photo/Jacques Saunes)

 

From The Asian Reporter, V12, #45 (November 5-11, 2002), page 12.

The power of stories

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie

English Translation by Ina Rilke

Knopf, 2001

Hardcover, 197 pages, $18.00

By Josephine Bridges

"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." Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a tale of the marvelous and terrible influence of narrative, a power that astonishes two storytellers.

The narrator of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is the son of doctors, "stinking scientific authorities." His friend Luo is the son of a dentist who told his students that he had fixed Mao Zedong’s teeth, thus committing "an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security." In 1971, these "young intellectuals" from the Chinese city of Chengdu are sent to a mountain called Phoenix of the Sky for "re-education." Ironically, neither had attended high school.

Luo is a skilled storyteller, and the two friends are relieved of their duties as waste carriers long enough to travel to the nearest town, watch a film, and return to relate the story to the inhabitants of their village. When they make the acquaintance of the local tailor and his daughter, "the princess of Phoenix mountain," the tailor arranges for the young men to have time off from their new work as coal miners to travel to his village and tell a film.

Four-Eyes, the son of writers, is undergoing "re-education" in another village on the mountain. Under his bed, beneath "a jumble of old shoes and broken slippers encrusted with mud and dirt," the narrator discovers a very heavy suitcase with three locks. When Four-Eyes’s glasses break, the narrator and Luo offer to carry his hod of rice through the snow in exchange for one of the forbidden books they believe the suitcase holds. Their reward is Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet. UMLAUT ?????

The narrator copies his favorite passages onto the inside of his sheepskin coat. Luo woos the seamstress by reading these passages to her. When the friends learn that Four-Eyes is leaving the mountain, they plot to steal the suitcase, in which they discover Chinese translations of the work of a dozen Western writers. "Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives," confides the narrator, who also feels "loathing for everyone who kept these books from us." But these treasures lead to sorrow and sense- less destruction.

In the hands of a less capable writer than Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress might have degenerated into a silly moral fable about thievery and/or the wisdom of censors. But this filmmaker, who was himself "re-educated" between 1971 and 1974, has something much subtler in mind. The reader is saddened and amazed along with the narrator who wonders if "we ourselves failed to grasp the essence of the novels."

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was unfortunately published in the United States on September 11, 2001. Plans to bring Dai Sijie to the U.S. from France, where he has lived since 1984, were cancelled. Nonetheless, this deserving little novel was discovered by booksellers, appeared on a number of bestseller lists, and has been reprinted ten times. Last week, Anchor Books released a paperback edition ($10.00) and Random House Audio released a 4-CD set ($27.50).

Dai Sijie finished a film version of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress last spring. The film has not yet been scheduled for release in the United States. Cross your fingers, and read the book while you’re waiting.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon