“The village headman, a man about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hallowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin.”
What an amazing first sentence, Dai Sijie presents in “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”. In that one sentence, I have a vivid image of the headman, living the harsh life of simplicity and tradition, examining this foreign/Western object, and it readily supplies the crux of the novel – the clash between traditional Chinese culture, radical Maoism, and the foreign, Western, unknown culture.
The narrator and Luo are sent to a rural village on a faraway mountain for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. They arrive as city boys, but during their stay, and the course of the novel, they evolve to become adults. A classic tale, you might say, and you would be right, but this tale is told with such sincerity and atmosphere that it is by no means a generic or old tale.
The Cultural Revolution is the foundation of the novel. It is the reason the narrator and Luo are on the mountain, the reason why Western books are banned, and it is the ever- present undercurrent in everything that happens. When the narrator plays his violin for the headman, Luo presents the sonata as Mozart thinking of Chairman Mao. However, this is not a book about the Cultural Revolution.
The narrator and Luo met Little Seamstress, who is born and raised on the mountain. She is in essence traditional and Chinese. Together the three uncover a suitcase full of Western books and they begin to read.
“We were beside ourselves. My head reeled, as if I’d had too much to drink. I took the novels out of the suitcase one by one, opened them, studied the portraits of the authors, and passed them on the Luo. Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.” (p. 93)
In my opinion, this is a central passage in the novel. The three adolescents read stories in order to find their own tales. That is perhaps what we all seek to find when we read – at least subconsciously.
Towards the end of the novel, Luo gets to tell his story as a first person narrator. I felt that chapter of the book was a bit of a jump in narrative style, but the story he tells is very interesting. Luo, who is in love with Little Seamstress, meets her at a pond to talk and swim and …, and while there Little Seamstress is bitten by a snake. The parallels to the story of Adam and Eve thrown out of the Garden of Eden is evident. To me, it speaks of their gained knowledge and experiences. They cannot un-know the things they know. None of us can. We can ignore what we know and choose not to use it, but we cannot willingly un-know it. This realization dawn on the three in different ways.
This is the kind of novel, I would recommend – and if you’re in a hurry, I can recommend the movie, which is directed by Dai Sijie.