Thursday, May 13, 2010

Book Review: Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A NovelPublisher/Year: Anchor, 2002

Small books should produce short reviews. This seems simplistically logical. Unless said small book is brimming with historical, cultural, and political perculations. Then all bets can be presumably off. This is where I currently stand with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a captivating novel by Dai Sijie. Well, actually, it is not so much a novel as a fable, a semi-autobiographical fable at that. But we’ll get to that later.

I need to cycle back to the slim factor. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress runs to around 184 pages, not the standard minimum 200 pages to which one becomes accustomed with contemporary fiction. The length is deceptive, intriguing. The first question I had was whether the book was more short story than novel. Could it carry the narrative construct full-circle, filling in the appropriate shading at key spots to gift it literary heft? It seems foolish now, and a tad embarrassing, to realize that these questions rested on a judgement of its mere physical presence. Especially so when I start to consider how physical presence is delicately and ideologically contrasted with that of the emotional, psychological, and cultural presence within the book’s pages. Short story long: small book, big impact.

Set in the early 1970’s, two teenage boys (the narrator and his friend Luo) from disgraced middle class families are sent to a remote village in the Phoenix of the Sky mountain to be re-educated as part of China’s Cultural Revolution. The narrator brings with him a violin that is mistaken by the villagers as a ‘bourgeois toy’. Told that the violin must be destroyed, the boys manage to con the village headman into giving back the violin by stating that it is officially sanctioned by the government. And to prove it so, the narrator performs a Mozart sonata now artfully referred to as “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”

As reward for their quick intelligence, the boys are introduced to their barely-modest living conditions and backbreaking labor in the local coal mine. But fortune comes their way in fellow laborer and old friend Four Eyes, who just happens to be the son of a well-known poet and the keeper of a secret suitcase filled with Western novels. The novels are forbidden fruit for the narrator and Luo, not just because of the defiance the books represent to their mandated re-education pursuit but because they had never before had access to any such works. The duality of this significance makes the novels even more covetous, and after much bartering and bullying, Balzac’s “Ursule Mirouet” makes its way into their eager hands and hearts.

''Picture,'' Dai says, ''a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.''

Prior to this discovery, the boys had been recipients of travels to a nearby village to watch new films. The village headman would then request a report back, resulting in the boys spinning their own vivid Technicolor stories for a captive audience. These experiences soon demonstrated to the boys that story-telling would be the key to their survival. Their stumbling upon the secret suitcase provides an additional means to exploit this advantage, and provides the catalyst for an unanticipated and somewhat unrecognized education in hope, love, and freedom.

How the novels within that secret suitcase transform the lives and loves of the narrator and Luo as well as those immediately around them is the centerpiece of the story. It is not so much that the books exist but how the boys bring their experiences of the novels alive for their fellow villagers that feeds their craving for knowledge beyond their mountain. This knowledge provides them with hope for the future, a way through the agony burdened on their physicality by the tenets of the Cultural Revolution.

"Without [Jean-Christophe, the eponymous hero of Romain Rolland's four-volume masterpiece] I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland's hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world."

Around the same time as the suitcase discovery, the story-telling capabilities of the boys brings them into contact with the local tailor and his beautiful seamstress daughter. It is through the courtship of Lou and the Little Seamstress that the pure potency of the novels is activated. The transformative power contained within the imaginations of these boys to intellectually struggle against the controls aimed at them is triggered through the reading of the novels. Luo’s determination to mirror this transformation in the Little Seamstress gives her a path to her own freedom, to her own power as a woman and as a sexual being. Her final act seems inevitable yet shocks the boys, and provides the coda to the fable’s concepts of intellectual pursuit and intellectual liberation.

There is a bitterness that comes from lessons learned, like we somehow failed ourselves for not knowing already what needed to be learnt. Such a lesson comes at the expense of loss for the boys, not only of the Little Seamstress but in their prior intellectual victories. As the narrator asks, “had we ourselves failed to grasp the essence of the novels we had read to her?''

It is not so much a failure as a maturing, a recognition that the opening of the mind to truth and the opening of the soul to hope is a rage against the machine that can cut both ways. These are actions that can outlast and outstrip any processes or methodologies or systems that seek to close both entities to the pursuit of self-discovery, but not without a cost. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as it sets forth a path that, even if not taken, still always exists. The real question then is whether the boys are better off having experienced the novels, having been seduced by them.

Such is the overarching mode of Sidjie’s fable. More Orwellian that Orwell could have imagined, the Cultural Revolution operated for a decade to stamp out the educated, intellectual class and re-educate the youth in ways of the virtuous peasantry. But for all its might, the Revolution could not eradicate the power of the intellect, the creativity it forges and promotes. Sijie was one of those youth, spending the years between 1971 and 1974 in the mountains of Sichaun Province. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is his streamlined yet riveting semi-autobiographical fable of those years, an expression of creativity that vibrates with wickedly vivid depictions of a time that could perhaps be most simplistically described as ‘strange’ to those of us on the outside looking in.

It is also, and more winningly so, an expression of cultural education wrapped up in a double-bind literary motivation that could only be so artfully crafted by the hands of someone who lived through the strangeness and came out at the end believing that they were indeed better off for having experienced it.

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