The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the 1960s and '70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for "re-education." This moving, often wrenching short novel by a writer who was himself re-educated in the '70s tells how two young men weather years of banishment, emphasizing the power of literature to free the mind. Sijie's unnamed 17-year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors' sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on "oral cinema shows" for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales.
Fine Printings' Review
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was certainly NOT a favorite of mine. Fellow readers who expressed an interest in this novel and pointed my nose in its direction were led to believe this a tale of a young woman, a coming of age story. I did not find that so. In all actuality, the tale is that of two teenage boys (narrated by one), working among the mountains in communist China. The story documents their own struggles, trials and the discovery of new friends, and of new enemies. On top of all this, the plotline seemed inadequately developed. And more often than not it was tedious and a trial to read through. Though this novel is only a couple hundred pages (short compared to most) it took me twice as long as it normally would to read due to lackluster writing. Of course, this is my opinion and the book did receive a lot of press, and as it is originally written in French, some of the prose could be lost in translation. I will leave it up to the readers to decide.