18 July 2006

11. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

A good little story about the Cultural Revolution. I'll admit that I know next to nothing about Chinese history. I have a little bit of stuff rattling around about the dynasties and the Revolution and establishment of Taiwan.

This story is about two young men who are relocated to a remote mountain village for re-education. As part of the Cultural Revolution city slickers were sent into the country to work alongside the peasants. The peasants decided how long the re-education would last, and in the case of the two main characters there is almost no hope that the re-education will end because each of the boys' parents are considered radicals.

Conditions on the mountain are harsh. Rains cause so much flooding that their little, drafty house is on stilts. Because they have been to the movies, and because of the natural story-telling gifts of Luo, the boys get special treatment (fewer work details and opportunities to go to the city to watch new movies).

During their travels they meet, and Luo falls in love with the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the tailor who works on the mountain. Luo teaches her how to read, and takes her to the movies in the city. Eventually she catches up with Luo's skills and wants to go to the city all the time. And she starts dressing a little more cosmopolitan (she can make her own clothes, you see).

Luo, who has to stay on the mountain, can only watch helplessly as she is pulled out of her old self.

Another section of the story deals with Four Eyes, a fellow city-slicker sent to the mountain who smuggles in a suitcase full of books. In exchange for some help, Four Eyes lends Luo a copy of Balzac. Luo uses the novel his story-telling and wooing of the Little Seamstress.

To say anymore would be to reveal too much. This is a short book, and the story is well told, in a spare style that leaves us as isolated as the two protagonists.

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