BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by Dai Sijie
Genre: Fiction and Literature
How Acquired: BookCrossing
Reading Began: June 3, 2005
Completed Reading: June 5, 2005
Overall Rating: Seven out of ten
Recommendation to others: This slight tome brings plenty of punch with interesting characters and an engaging story.
Why I chose to read this book: Another great critical review, though I forget where I first heard of it.
Comments: The story captivates from page one, bringing an unique situation and filling it with rich characters and a likable narrator. Two adolescent boys are sent to a mountain village for “re-education”, something the author himself underwent as a youth, and find themselves awakened by contraband books to discover themselves as emerging adults. Most chapters present a specific tale in the life of these boys, but many center around a growing relationship with the local tailor’s daughter known as the Little Seamstress. It is this relationship that dictates the overall story, but it is the narrator who remains center focus throughout.
While I really enjoyed this book and could not help but read it at every opportunity, I was disappointed on two points. The protagonist was a classical violinist, and this violin served a major purpose in the early chapters, but somewhere in the course of the big picture it became an afterthought. I would have liked the violin to be as important as it appeared it would be in the beginnings of the tale. Likewise, I was disappointed in the ending. The story built to a climatic moment of decision, but instead of following through, the author shifted gears and inserted several short chapters that pulled me entirely out of the tale. Though the author returned to the issues set forth and presented a wonderful chapter set in a hospital, the brief interruptions halted all momentum, after which a conclusion was simply thrown at me with little subtlety. I felt cheated in the end, and somewhat like the author had simply wanted to stop writing the story. Which is a shame because the tale was original and worth waiting to discover.
Among the books in Four-Eyes’s suitcase there was only one by [Romain Rolland]: volume one of his four-volume masterpiece, Jean-Christophe. The Chinese translation was by Fu Lei, who also did the Balzac translations. As the story was about a musician and I myself played pieces on the violin such as Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao, I was naturally drawn to the book. I had intended only a brief flirtation, a skim read, but once I had opened the book I couldn’t put it down. Until then short stories had been my favourite reading: well wrought and sparkling with ideas, tales that made you laugh or took your breath away, that would stay with you for the rest of your days. I was more dubious about full-length novels. But Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour 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. The flirtation turned into a grand passion. Even the excessively emphatic style occasionally indulged in by the author did not detract from the beauty of this astonishing work of art. I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same. Part III (pp. 110-111)