Monday, October 22, 2007

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie

Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie, translated from the French by Ina Rilke
Country: France/China
Year: 2000
Rating: B
Pages: 184 pgs.

First sentence: The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin.

Short Summary: Two city boys, both sons of intellectuals who have been identified as class enemies during the Cultural Revolution, are sent for re-education in a remote mountain village. There they meet the daughter of a local tailor, and discover a hidden stash of Western classic novels.

Is this a Challenge book? I read this for both the Books to Movies challenge, and my own personal Reading Across Borders challenge. Which leads me to a debate I have been having with myself (aren't those the best kinds of debate?), about how to classify this book. I originally have it listed under my China selection. It is written by a man born in China. But, the novel itself was written in French, 16 years after he left China. So, technically, it could also be considered a French novel, right? Yet, it is a story about China. There are so many books out there written by refugees and other immigrants, this thought keeps coming up in my mind. Hmmm. I've decided to keep Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress as my China selection, but may read another book down the line that is translated from the Chinese.

What did I think? On starting this novel, I realized I have read very few books about re-education during the Cultural Revolution, and they have all been non-fiction. Since this is the first time I have come across this topic as the centerpiece of a novel, I was quite excited to dive into the story.

For the most part, it did not disappoint. It is a charming story filled with beautiful imagery and subtle humor. The non-linear storytelling may be a turn-off to some, but I personally enjoy this style. If done well, it keeps the reader on their toes. As the story progresses, however, I started to get the impression that the author began the story almost as an autobiography, introducing a few bits of fiction. But, as the story continues, the fictional aspects grow greater, yet at the same time unrealistic. The resulting effect is a story that feels a bit disjointed and out of tune with itself. However, I still believe the overall power of the story makes it a worthwhile read.

For those who have read it, I am curious what you thought about the ending. That I did not like!


Laura said...

Hi, I've lurked around a bit and I love your reviews.

I read the book too and I was also upset by the ending! I kept hoping as I turned the page that there would be more, but there wasn't...I was so sad.

Nyssaneala said...

laura - Welcome! The ending was very abrupt. I wish we would have been able to get to know the little seamstress more, and her motivations.

Dewey said...

I only vaguely remember this book, and I don't remember the ending at all, sorry! I read it several years ago, at least 6, I think.

Literary Feline said...

I'm afraid my memory of the ending is rather vague. It's been so long since I read it. I do remember enjoying the book thought.

Anonymous said...

I picked up this book recently from my library's book sale. Thanks for the great review!

Nyssaneala said...

dewey - That's ok!

literary feline - It seems like I'm not the only one who has a hard time remembering the plot of books I read a couple years ago. I'm hoping now that I review books I will retain a little bit more!

stephanie - Thanks! I hope you enjoy it too.

Sherry said...

I wrote about the book here (, and I wrote mostly about the ending. I didn't like it either.

Callista said...

I've added this to the Book to Movie listing. Doesn't sound like a book I'd be interested in. Feel free to add more books if you come across a suitable book between now and Dec 1.

Julie/mom said...

I liked the ending, thought it went well with the concept of the "re-education". The little seamstress was re-educated by the books and wanted to grow and learn more. She left abruptly, the book ended abruptly. It was almost as if the 2 boys learned why the books could be "dangerous". The were angry/bothered enough to burn the books. It was good irony.

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