The past few years have seen the U.S. release of many interesting novels dealing with life inside communist China. From Ha Jin's poetic take on China's frustrating realities in Waiting to 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian's dense, challenging epic of the self, Soul Mountain, we have been shown glimpses of a world so strange to us it fascinates as readily as it horrifies. Dai Sijie's first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, offers a small taste of that reality. However, it comes across as a much more playful story, perhaps influenced by the same author, Balzac, whose books make up such a large part of the plot, or else by the French language in which Sijie wrote this novel and the culture from which that language comes.
The story, set in 1972, follows two Chinese teens sent for "re-education" in a rural village so far from a city that common city items are unfamiliar. Villagers immediately become obsessed with the alarm clock the boys bring with them (which turns out to be the only clock in town). Much of the early plot depicts these boys finding ways to avoid hard work in the fields and coal mine, often using the clock for trickery. The plot then shifts to the affair one of the boys, Luo, begins with a girl Sijie refers to chiefly as The Little Seamstress. Meanwhile, the boys are introduced to banned books by authors such as Balzac, Hugo, and Dumas (how this happens is best left for readers to discover on their own). The books captivate both boys, unleashing their poetic imaginations and enhancing their storytelling abilities (this helps with their avoidance of work and also with Luo's wooing of The Little Seamstress).
In many ways, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress falls short of capturing the bleak communist lifestyle that defines other such novels. It is Sijie's sense of humor, however, that carries the book and makes it worth reading. One gets a glimpse of this in the first chapter when the narrator is found with a violin and, after playing Mozart for the villagers, is afraid of what might happen to him, western music having been banned by the communist leaders. The villagers, however, have never heard of Mozart and know nothing of western music. Thus Luo saves the day by informing them that the song played was a ditty called, "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." That sort of wit, often more subtle, runs throughout the book and eases the reader through what seems to be mostly a collage of rather ordinary scenes.
I would hesitate to recommend this book for anyone interested in the desperation or despair so often depicted among Chinese protagonists. Even so, the book provides an interesting pause as well as quite a few intellectual laughs. Also, its relatively short length (197 pages) makes it a beach book compared to something like Soul Mountain that might best be saved for one's next re-education in a small village in the middle of nowhere.