Friday, July 29, 2011

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for reeducation during China's infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined. (back cover)

I wasn't as taken with Dai Sijie's Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress as I thought I would be. It was a little heavy on the grim reality of life in 1970s China and not so much on the discovery of classic literature as promised in the summary. My disappointment might just be me being selfish, though, wanting only the good parts. What this book did do, however, was remind me just how fortunate I am to live with free access to a variety of literature at all. Perhaps today's powers-that-be should read this book before deciding to close libraries. I'm just saying.

Then I was seized with an idea: I would copy out my favorite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents. pg58

We crept up to the staircase. It was tied with a thick rope of plaited straw, knotted crosswise. We removed the rope and raised the lid in silence. Inside, piles of books shone in the light of our torch: a company of great Western writers welcomed us with open arms. On top was our old friend Balzac, with five or six novels, then came Victor Hugo, Stendahl, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Romain Roland, Rosseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and some English writers, too: Dickens, Kipling, Emily Bronte . . . pg99

During the whole month of September following our successful burglary we were seduced, overwhelmed, spellbound by the mystery of the outside world, especially the world of women, love and sex as revealed to us by these Western writers day after day, page after page, book after book. pg109

The flirtation turned into a grand passion. Even the excessively emphatic style occasionally indulged in by the author did not detract form the beauty of this astonishing work of art. I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same. pg111


Anonymous said...

I actually enjoyed very much this book. and the movie based on it is very good too, with slight variations. I used to recopy by hand tons of excerpts form book, I still have lots of notebooks with those. Now, I tend to type the passages in Facebook notes, and they integrate them in my reviews when I write the review of the book.
Emma @ Words And Peace

Heidi'sbooks said...

The cover is so striking. Your excerpt is amazing. I have not seen this book anywhere. Thanks for the review.

Trish said...

emma - it was a very touching story, that's for sure. I just wish they had spent more time with the books than anything else ;)

heidi - it's a lovely cover, isn't it? I found my copy at a used book store so I don't know how available it is otherwise. It's quite short too.

Sam said...

This one has been on my wishlist for a long time. I think your review was very balanced, but I still really want to read it :)

Trish said...

sam - yes, it's very much worth reading. I'll be interested to know what you think of it.

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