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.

Review: The Girl Who Played Go

Shan Sa, The Girl Who Played Go (trans. Adriana Hunter)

This novel is set in a place and time that I have very little knowledge of, Manchuria in the 1930s. The two narrators are a Chinese schoolgirl whose passion for the game of go makes her unique and a Japanese soldier who has come to China with Japan’s invading army. The soldier muses on the nature of war and his victorious country’s relationship with the conquered Chinese. The girl, on the other hand, is more concerned with her widening romantic experience and the problems of daily life. But when the two characters meet over a game of go, the consequences will be far-reaching and devastating for them both.

What I liked most about this book is that it opened a window for me into another culture and way of life. I mistakenly thought the book would be more about Japan’s military movements in World War II, but instead it deals with an earlier conflict that I knew nothing about. But while the setting was unique, the problems the soldier faces in this book are universal: What is courage? What are the possible justifications, if any, for waging war? What are the circumstances under which a soldier can or should disobey orders? I found the soldier a more compelling character overall than the Chinese girl. She’s very shallow and frivolous for much of the novel, and while she does eventually change, it happened too late for me to care much about her. I also didn’t feel the emotional impact of the ending the way I think I was supposed to. Overall, I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t race to pick up another book by this author.