Monday, September 04, 2006

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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This semi auto-biographical book tells of the adventures of 2 teenage boys in the 70s at the height of the Cultural Revolution in China. Being the sons of citizens who are considered enemies of the communist state, they are sent to the hinterlands for re-education. They are made to do manual tasks, tending the fields, cleaning latrines, mining, etc to emancipate them from the bourgeoisie. However, the notoriety of their parents makes them special re-education cases; they have 3 out of a thousand chances of getting out. They suffer for their parents’ sins to the Communist government. They get re-education indeed, but more than they expect to get. First, they meet the daughter of the tailor, one of the most revered figures in the region, whom they fondly call the Little Seamstress. Second, in a visit to their friend, the son of literary geniuses, they stumble upon a suitcase filled with books, all forbidden Western classics—Balzac and the gang. These two events give them the re-education they aren’t expecting to get.

The Little Seamstress—porcelain skin, braided long black tresses, delicate toes hidden inside the nifty-looking red shoes—stands out among all the native girls. Understandably, the adolescence in the two boys forcibly takes the driver’s seat. Both of them are awakened to the passions of love and the heat of carnal desire, albeit the other one vicariously. And they in turn, transform the Little Seamstress into the sophisticated girl that they envision her to be—a move which they regret in the end.

The suitcase of books becomes the object of their covetousness since they discovered it hidden underneath their friend’s belongings. They do everything, to the extent of helping their friend’s daily re-education tasks, only to be lent just one book from the bunch, the one by Balzac which fuel more their desire to get their hands on the other lustful delights in the suitcase. So intense is their thirst for these contrabands that they hatch a plan to steal the books on the eve of their friend’s “graduation” from re-education.

No I’m not going to tell you the story. You have to read it. The book is a funny, coming-of-age story, and an ode to books and the love of it. This is no Harry Potter, but Dai Sijie does a good job in keeping the readers interested from start to finish. This has got to be one of the books that I will read again.

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