Reflections: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie's novella Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress holds out the promise latent in all acclaimed and slender works of fiction. There is an excitement specific to contemporary medium length fiction, which causes hopes of spare, elegant, and often experimental prose to dance in one's head. Form aside, here is a romantic story of love and friendship in the midst of an important historical moment.

Luo and his peer Ma, our narrator, bear the perceived sins of their professional parents and so are sent to a rural town to participate in communal labor and be "reeducated" in the agrarian ideal so dear to Mao's heart. They suffer the physical dangers and annoyances of the primitive society in which they sojourn, forced to carry human and animal waste on their backs to fertilize the fields, to work naked in locally run coal mines, and to brave the risks of malarial air. They are saved from complete depression by the tokens of urban culture they are able to retain: Ma's violin, an alarm clock, and a hunger for a good story. Then, they meet the little seamstress, and, with the help of a stock of banned books, become the purveyors of their own reeducation program, focusing their youthful energy on changing a beautiful mountain girl into their educated female ideal.

Although built around the interesting question of what happens when fully indoctrinated children of the Cultural Revolution first ingest western ideas devoid of their social context, Balzac fails to involve the reader in the sudden self-realization of the three young protagonists. The problem seems to lie in a wavering of purpose: is the goal to detail the experiences of the generation of Chinese coming of age in Mao's rural re-education program, or to define the effect that foreign literature can have on fecund minds regardless of material and historical context? Is this a love story or a story about trench friendships arising in difficult circumstances? It is in some respect all of these, but in the most important respect, none.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Thanks.

Fire Dragon said...

I particularly like thin books. This is probably because I am a crappy and distracted reader but I really enjoyed this one.