Time to broaden my literary horizons with another handsome little edition in the Vintage East series: this time, Dai Sijie’s 2001 novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Or am I broadening my horizons? Sijie’s novel seems to owe more to the glut of comfortable, easy-going eastern literature that followed in the wake of Memoirs of a Geisha, than to the much more … other work of writers like Yukio Mishima or Kobo Abe.
Which is not to say that Sijie doesn’t have the credentials to tell an interesting tale that will be foreign to most of us. In his youth in 1970s China he was a victim of ‘re-education’ during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress takes a readable, relatively light look at such an experience. The narrator is sent away from the city for ‘re-education’ among the peasantry owing to his unfortunate status as a ‘young intellectual’ and the offspring of ‘enemies of the people’: his parents were doctors who committed the unpatriotic crime of being ‘stinking scientific authorities.’ His friend Luo is from yet worse stock: his father is a dentist who dared to tell people that he had fixed Mao Zedong’s teeth. “It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security.”
Luo and the narrator are fast friends and become even closer when sent away. Their escapades are described in a pleasing, quietly humorous way. One of these involves the metal alarm clock which the boys have, and which fascinates the villagers, who have never seen such a thing before. It becomes the authoritative timepiece in the village, and:
One day Luo had a brainwave: with his little finger he slid the hands of the clock back by one hour. We got back into bed to enjoy our lie-in. … After that historic morning we got into the habit of readjusting the time on the alarm clock. It all depended on how we were feeling, physically and mentally. Sometimes, instead of turning the clock back, we would put it forward by an hour or two, so as to finish the day’s work early.
In the end we had changed the position of the hands so many times that we had no idea what the time really was.
Along the way they meet the little seamstress of the title, with whom Luo falls in love, and Four-Eyes, whom the boys bribe to loan them his contraband: banned books of Western literature, from Balzac to Flaubert to Dumas. And so the story becomes a likeable tale of the humanising, transformative effect of art, and the possibilities of the imagination in a time and place where the remainder of the self is stifled.
Where Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress falls down is in its very lightness and readability. The potential to tell a story of the harrowing effects of the Cultural Revolution and re-education is lost, and even the feelings of the boys at losing their families is never explored. It has a fairy-tale tone but lacks the secret horror of most real fairy tales. It needs more shocks. In fact the most surprising thing about the book is contained in the copyright page, where we learn that this story of Chinese culture based on the real experiences of a Chinese writer is translated by Ina Rilke. From the French.