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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Sijie) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews 
A funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel.
Washington Post Book World


Set in a rural Chinese province in the early 1970s, during the horrifying period of Communist "reeducation" known as the Cultural Revolution, Sijie's book tells the story of two privileged friends forced into a life of backbreaking labor for the state. Because their parents are doctors, the boys become objects of relentless suspicion, making their chances of parole unlikely. They have only their wits, and their mutual love of storytelling, to help them survive. After the boys find a box of contraband Western literature in Chinese translation, they begin discussing the stories with an unschooled seamstress. It's a bold move that becomes the turning point of their lives. Sijie's novel has all the makings of a great story: strong-willed, sympathetic heroes faced with tremendous obstacles, who are unwilling to compromise their ideals; a clear-cut antagonist; and even a little romance. High-minded yet accessible and engaging, the book touts the redemptive powers of self-expression. Despite the dark setting, it has elements of enchantment and exoticism.
Kevin Greenberg - Book Magazine


The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the 1960s and '70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for "re-education." This moving, often wrenching short novel by a writer who was himself re-educated in the '70s tells how two young men weather years of banishment, emphasizing the power of literature to free the mind. Sijie's unnamed 17-year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors' sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on "oral cinema shows" for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He succeeds beyond his expectations, but the result is not what he might have hoped for, and leads to an unexpected, droll and poignant conclusion. The warmth and humor of Sijie's prose and the clarity of Rilke's translation distinguish this slim first novel, a wonderfully human tale.
Publishers Weekly


This deceptively small novel has the power to bring down governments. In Mao's China, the Cultural Revolution rages, and two friends caught in the flames find themselves shuttled off to the remote countryside for reeducation. The stolid narrator occasionally comforts himself by playing the violin, and both he and more outgoing friend Luo find that they have a talent for entertaining others with their re-creations of films they have seen. A little light comes their way when they meet the stunning daughter of the tailor in the town nearby, with whom Luo launches an affair. But the real coup is discovering a cache of forbidden Western literature including, of course, Balzac that forces open their world like a thousand flowers blooming. The literature proves their undoing, however, finally losing them the one thing that has sustained them. Dai Sijie, who was himself reeducated in early 1970s China before fleeing to France, wonderfully communicates the awesome power of literature of which his novel is proof. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert.
Library Journal


A curious debut novel by a Chinese expatriate filmmaker, first published to widespread acclaim in 1998 France, dramatizes the restrictions placed on the minds and imaginations of Chairman Mao's followers. In the early 1970s, two teenaged boys-the unnamed narrator and his older friend Luo (both of whose parents have been declared counterrevolutionaries)-are sent for "re-education" to a remote mountain village where, among other indignities, they're forced to carry brimming buckets of excrement. The former, a soulful boy who plays the violin, is permitted to keep his "toy" when the quick-witted Luo announces that the tune his friend is playing is entitled "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." Nothing else is as explosively funny, in an oddly paced tale that details efforts to outwit the village's tyrannical "headman" (they become "tellers of films" they've seen in a nearby town) and escape from communal mindlessness-which they manage by stealing a cache of translated Western books (including several Balzac novels) from an acquaintance whom they befriend, then deceive. Their prize possessions also attract the eponymous "little seamstress" (daughter of an itinerant tailor), whom the lovestruck Luo impulsively courts. So successful is the course of her "re-education" that she rids herself of Luo's child by having an abortion, dons Western-style clothing, and leaves the mountain for life in the big city (presumably as a Balzac or Flaubert heroine). The desires of Dai Sijie's people to expand their intellectual horizons are nicely realized, but several of this brief story's episodes digress to no discernible purpose, failing to either advance its narrative or deepen our understanding of its(more or less generic) characters. Literate and moderately engaging, but unlikely to enjoy the same runaway success that greeted it in La Belle France.
Kirkus Reviews




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