During the Maoist regime of 1970’s China, reactionary individuals were packed off to the countryside to be cleansed of their bourgeois attitudes and made ideologically pure through daily toil and close contact with the peasant stock.
For the two central characters of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, their exile in a remote village close to Tibet provides an education far removed from that desired by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. A chance encounter leads them to a suitcase full of forbidden books by Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert. They devour the books huddled over an oil lamp in their barren room, often reading throughout the night until the first light of dawn. Literature becomes their passion and a way of escaping the desperation of their situation.
When the Little Seamstress enters their lives, their passion for books and their passionate desire and love of this beautiful tailor’s daughter coalesce. She too goes through a process of education but the result is not one the boys expect and the experience has a profound effect on their lives.
In essence this is a story of the joy and despair of young love or of ‘love against all the odds’. It’s a poignant tale but what stops if from being overly sugary is the way Sijie interjects humour into his narrative. In the very first scene the two boys convince the village headman that the violin sonata they play is called “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”. Later they sit on a filthy bed, feeling the lice creeping up their legs to hear some true songs of the mountain peasants only to find they are meaningless and bawdy ditties.
Though it’s a slim book – more of a novella really at only 160 pages – but it packs in a lot of symbolism. The themes and motifs of the books they read in many ways parallel the experience of the trio with their references to exile and illicit love. When a snake bites the hand of the seamstress leaving a permanent star, we get an early warning signal that this Garden of Eden is likely to become a lost paradise before the book is over.
If I have a gripe with the book it’s the treatment of the ending. It felt as if the author had run out of steam after recounting a moment which is the dramatic turning point of the story – and couldn’t find a way of finishing expect to do a quick summary of what happened subsequently. It was disappointing to find the lives of these three engaging characters dismissed so rapidly.