Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressDai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (trans. Ina Rilke)

This slight novel tells the story of two young Chinese men who are sent to a remote mountain village to be “re-educated” during the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Both youths are talented individuals; the unnamed narrator plays the violin, and his best friend Luo is a master storyteller. Despite these gifts, however, they soon feel oppressed by the overwhelming boredom of their new lives, where they are forced to perform manual labor from dawn to dusk. But two unexpected events soon occur, changing the course of their lives forever: they discover a hidden cache of Western classics translated into Chinese, and they meet a beautiful young seamstress who steals both their hearts.

This is a very short book, and it honestly felt more like a tableau than a novel to me. The setting is described vividly with meticulous prose, but nothing much happens. I think I was expecting the book to be more overtly political, since the author was himself “re-educated” during this time period and ended up leaving China for France. But while the cultural revolution certainly isn’t praised, the boys’ lives aren’t portrayed in a particularly negative light either. Also, their exposure to Western culture isn’t always a good thing; in fact, their relationship with the seamstress is irrevocably altered by her exposure to European literature. So I was very interested by the ambiguities in the novel, but the plot and characters didn’t particularly grip me. I’d like to read another novel (or nonfiction work) about this time period, which seems like it would be rich in dramatic material.

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