Book Review of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The story of Balzac and Little Chinese Seamstress depicts an amalgamation of fairy tales of Grimm and realism of Guy de Maupassant. The story is actually a description of the lives of the narrator and his friend Luo and it grows up with the background of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through the story the author has presented a brief picture of China during the Revolution.

Submitted: May 27, 2013

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Submitted: May 27, 2013

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The story of Balzac and Little Chinese Seamstress depicts an amalgamation of fairy tales of Grimm and realism of Guy de Maupassant. The story is actually a description of the lives of the narrator and his friend Luo and it grows up with the background of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through the story the author has presented a brief picture of China during the Revolution. The pictures of outrages, humiliations, the poverty in the Chinese countryside and the efforts of the countrymen to survive amidst of obscurities and uncertainties - all have been depicted in a composite way.  But the story offers only a few episodes of the Revolution’s characteristics but provides a glimpse of the power of literature which was emerging within the realm of the Cultural Revolution.
The 1970s China witnessed the domination of Mao’s Cultural Revolution which shut down universities and banished reactionary intellectuals to countryside to lead and learn the way of living the lives of peasants. The narrator, the son of doctors, and Luo, the son of a dentist, are labeled as young intellectuals though they haven’t graduated from the high school. But both were victimized through their banishment to a remote and unforgiving mountain named Phoenix of the Sky for the sake of re-education. There dwelling place is a harsh one as their environment. Through such projection the narrator has revealed the conditions of the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Young boys, who committed the crime of completing high school were identified as intellectuals and banished to countryside for experiencing a bitter life. But all the way of the story the author has failed to show the bleak overall social picture of the Revolutionary China with all its ailments.
The two protagonists are sent away to a remote world where their alarm clock is the only timepiece in the entire town – as if projecting that time has stopped there in the primitive period and has remained unprogressive. But amidst of the dreary and drab life of the village there are occasional visits to distant towns by the narrator and Luo to watch movies and later on, returning back to their habitat, telling stories of the movies they used to watch to the local people as a mode of entertainment. Besides, there is love and humor parallel to pain and agony in the story. In spite of the horrific condition of the village, the two boys managed to live and work, to find solace and humor and finally finds love within the local tailor’s eye-catching daughter, the novel’s Little Seamstress.
The entire story has projected some devastating truths of the Cultural Revolution in China and one of them was the fact that Mao’s revolution actually kept away the contemporary young generation from the western influence. Though one may term it as the process of encouraging the vernacular language and indigenous literature, the real fact remains that living aloof from the Western literature was to keep oneself away from the ideologies of liberalism, freedom and progressiveness. But the central characters of the narrator and Luo are intellectuals who are not fully westernized or fully oriental. The horrific educational turmoil entrapped between half literate and half illiterate is the theme which has been vividly and sometimes subtly projected in the story. Luo and the narrator are both willing to learn more about the secret of the valuable possession of Four-Eyes. The treasures of Four-Eyes are his books, the books which are the pathways to the Western ideology and thrill. Though Four-Eyes is unwilling to share his valuable possessions, the voracious learning appetite of both Luo and the narrator enforces them to do almost anything to have a hold on those books.  And eventually the boys are introduced to the banned books (the valuable treasures of Four-Eyes) of authors like Balzac, Hugo and Dumas. And the discovery of the books was the self-discovery for both the narrator and his friend. Both of them are charmed and spelled by the books, such a spell which enhanced their poetic imaginations and narrating skills. The readings also led to the physical union of The Little Seamstress and one of the young men whose psychological transition from boys to young men was also ushered in by the revealing of the ideologies of the books, especially by Balzac. But strikingly enough the concept of loss of virginity of a woman by a young man under the spell of western literature’s ideology may be again a symbolic representation of the principle of Mao’s socio-cultural revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China which stood against Western influence. But the author revealed that through the readings of the Western literature the boys and the girl realized their natural human instinct. And through such revelation the author conveyed the fact that the Cultural Revolution under the strong leadership of Mao actually tried to resist the young hearts of China to know themselves and their instincts properly in such a way through which they could have attained self-actualization.

 


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