April 25, 2010 @ 9:56 am
Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a book that neatly conforms to the phrase ‘poetry in motion’. Set in the times of the Chinese cultural revolution, when every educated youth was sent to the villages to get “re-educated” by the peasants, this book unfolds magically and just as youthfully as its protagonists.
Luo and Ma are two lads from the city whose parents have been classified as “enemies of the people” solely because they were educated doctors. Banished from the city, Luo and Ma find themselves in a village in the mountainous district of Yongjing. The book opens with a beautiful frame of the two kids being inspected by a crowd of peasants led by the village headman. I use the word frame because this book paints pictures very well in your mind. After all that is the quality of literary excellence – to tear away from the boundaries of prose and instead sketch moments in the reader’s mind.
One such moment is during the inspection when the peasants discover that these two kids possess a violin – clearly a Western instrument and hence blasphemous. Luo decides that Ma should play the violin and this act might make the peasants happy. He announces that Ma will play a Mozart sonata. To this, the village headman warily asks what is a sonata. Ma replies that it is a Western song. This raises the vigilante mode of the headman and he insists on knowing the name of the song. “Mozart….,” Ma manages to mutter and the headman snaps at him in anger asking him to name the song. At this crucial juncture, Luo calmly slips in and says that the song’s name is “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”. Relief sets in all around, the headman smiles, nods to himself and replies, “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao all the time.” With that sweeping sentence he has just answered all questions about Mozart’s loyalty.
As Luo and Ma settle down to work in the fields, they discover and befriend another young boy from the city who has been sent to be “re-educated” to one of their neighbouring villages. This young boy, nicknamed Four-Eyes, has a secret – he is carrying with him a suitcase full of Western books. Through him, Luo and Ma are exposed to the French writer Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet. Luo and Ma read this book through the night and are fascinated about how it exposes them to worlds far away, to thoughts and emotions completely alien to them. Luo and Ma are now addicted – they want all the books from Four-Eyes. At around the same time, they meet the village tailor’s daughter – the beautiful little Chinese seamstress. A country girl, Luo and Ma both fall in love and take it upon themselves to “educate” her via the works of Balzac. Luo’s natural flair for story-telling is put to good use and she takes to Balzac like the proverbial fish does to water. Then one day, when Four-Eyes earned the permission to return to the city, Luo, Ma and the seamstress decide to steal the suitcase of books. After all, they couldn’t think of a life without Balzac!
Their lives become intertwined around works of Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, Romain Rolland and Alexander Dumas. The works of these master writers influence the three to such a large extent that their lives get changed forever.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a breezy little book that talks about the importance of dreaming, the futility of oppression and, perhaps directly so, the influence of literature on a society. While Balzac may have influenced many of the greatest writers of world literature (including Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Kerouac among others), Dai Sijie’s book is also a wonderful piece of writing and is perhaps a fitting tribute to Balzac.