Reviews for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Booklist Monthly Selections - #2 September 2001
Stories set in China during the Cultural Revolution usually follow a trail of human struggle and tragedy, but this little gem of a book spins magic thread out of broken dreams. Already a best-seller in France and slated for release in 19 countries, this novel is the story of two whimsical young men ordered to the countryside for reeducation as a result of their parents' political designation as "class enemies." Assigned the revolting task of carrying buckets of excrement up a hillside for the peasant farmers, the boys design a venue of storytelling sessions and quickly earn the headman's leniency in return. When they meet the local tailor's beautiful daughter, the luminescent Little Seamstress, and discover a wealth of forbidden Western books, life on the hillside takes a brighter turn. His book is truly enchanting, written with the rhythm of a fable. Dai Sijie is himself a survivor of that fateful time in China's history, yet he incorporates delightful humor into sketching his innovative cast of characters. ((Reviewed September 15, 2001)) Copyright 2001 Booklist Reviews
BookPage Reviews 2002 November
Looks can be deceiving: Between the covers of this tiny book lies a very large story, indeed. As the Cultural Revolution sweeps across China, two young men join forces when they're exiled to the countryside for re-education. Intellectual members of the upper class, the narrator and his friend Luo entertain their comrades—and win over their supervisor—by reenacting the movies they've seen. When the pair discover a supply of banned books from the West, their duties (which include hauling buckets of excrement to the local farmers) and lives are transformed by the magical power of literature. But their discovery has painful consequences. Mixing history and politics with romance, Sijie has written a remarkable meditation on the power of books, as well as a moving story of how two young men maintain hope in the face of oppression. Copyright 2002 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2001 August #1
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. Copyright Kirkus 2001 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2001 September #2
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" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2001 August #4
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. (Sept. 17) Forecast: Sijie's debut was a best-seller and prize winner in France in 2000, and rights have been sold in 19 countries; it is also scheduled to be made into a film. Its charm translates admirably strong sales can be expected on this side of the Atlantic. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2001 November
Adult/High School-This beautifully presented novella tracks the lives of two teens, childhood friends who have been sent to a small Chinese village for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Sons of doctors and dentists, their days are now spent muscling buckets of excrement up the mountainside and mining coal. But the boys-Luo and the unnamed narrator-receive a bit of a reprieve when the villagers discover their talents as storytellers; they are sent on monthly treks to town, tasked with watching a movie and relating it in detail on their return. It is here that they encounter the little seamstress of the title, whom Luo falls for instantly. When, through a series of comic and clever tricks and favors, the boys acquire a suitcase full of forbidden Western literature, Luo decides to "re-educate" the ignorant girl whom he hopes will become his intellectual match. That a bit of Balzac can have an aphrodisiac effect is a happy bonus. Ultimately, the book is a simple, lovely telling of a classic boy-meets-girl scenario with a folktale's smart, surprising bite at the finish. The story movingly captures Maoism's attempts to imprison one's mind and heart (with the threat of the same for one's body), the shock of the sudden cultural shift for "bourgeois" Chinese, and the sheer delight that books can offer a downtrodden spirit. Though these moments are fewer after the love story is introduced, teens will enjoy them at least as much as the comic and romantic strands.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.