Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Two city boys find themselves exiled to a mountain village for re-education in the early 70’s in this novel which explores the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its impact on the young intellectuals of China. Sijie spins a witty tale centered around the ban on books during this time in history. The simple writing style draws the reader into the story. Sijie succeeds in transporting the reader into the mountain village amongst the interesting peasant people.

I have to admit to some disappointment with this book, although I’m not certain why it left me somewhat unsatisfied. My favorite parts were the narrator’s descriptions of the beloved books, stolen from another “city boy” and hidden in the house on stilts. In the end, a twist to the story left me feeling oddly empty, when the re-education seems to have happened to a country girl – the little seamstress – rather than the two boys.

Reluctantly recommended. A quick read.

Excerpt from the book:

It was not hard to imagine the scene: the bug-infested bed upon which Four-Eyes lay, fighting to stay awake in case the old man happened to sing snatches of sincere, authentic folk songs in his sleep, while the lice swarmed out of their hiding places to attack in the dark, sucking his blood, skating on the slippery lenses of his spectacles, which he hadn’t removed for the night. At the slightest twitch of the old man’s body, at the faintest grunt, our friend Four-Eyes would hold his breath, ready to switch on his pocket torch and take notes like a spy. But after a brief moment of suspense everything would return to normal, with the old man snoring regularly to the rhythm of the never-ending water wheel.

“I’ve got an idea,” Luo said casually. “If we were to succeed in getting your miller to sing his folk songs to us, would you lend us some more books by Balzac?”

Four-Eyes didn’t answer at once. He focused his steamed-up glasses on the black water bubbling in the cauldron, as though hypnotised by the dead lice somersaulting among the bubbles and tobacco flakes.

Finally, he raised his head and asked Luo: “How do you propose to go about it?”
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