BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie
, June 29, 2002
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie
Translated by Ina Rilke
Vintage (Random House)
Rec. price: $19.95
"Reeducation nightmare"This moving novel is set against the backdrop of the "re-eduction" program, conducted in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Although listed as a work of fiction, the author Dai Sijie, a Chinese émigré now resident in France, who was himself "re-educated", draws upon the historical background of the Cultural Revolution.
The story centres on two young men, the narrator, and his friend Luo, both of whom are the sons of medical professionals, who are sent to a remote Chinese village to be "re-educated".
Their re-education involves living in a village without electricity and sewerage and performing menial and demeaning tasks. Luo's and the narrator's lives change when they meet the daughter of the local tailor, the Little Seamstress and another youth sent for re-education, Four Eyes.
The novel centres on the growing relationship between Luo and the Little Chinese Seamstress and the discovery that Four Eyes has a secret cache of translations of French novels. The discovery of these changes the drabness of the two leading characters' lives.
Humour also keeps them going and they embark upon an amusing sequence of events in an attempt to get hold of Four Eyes' books after he had lent them one, a sequence of events that are critical of the "re-education" program.
The Little Seamstress falls pregnant to Luo and convinces herself she has no other choice than an abortion. Her subsequent declaration is particularly confronting.Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
provides an interesting insight into one of the most tragic episodes in 20th century history.