Monday, March 23, 2009

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

To put it simply, I wasn't impressed with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Maybe it seemed shallow after the rich descriptions and character development in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Or maybe I just didn't care for the coming-of-age exploits of two boys in their late teens.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. From the back cover, I had gathered that the story revolved around the impact of Western literature on two Chinese boys during the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao attempted to equalize and redefine class status by sending countless numbers of city children to work among peasants in the countryside and mountainous regions of China. While I did learn about some of the hardships and injustices of the rural re-education program, the effects of Western literature were much less redeeming than I had anticipated. In the words of the narrator, "...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..." (109). Granted, the narrator also learned the concept of Western individualism, without which he would have remained "incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world" (110). But even his new found individualism was only employed to further his dreams of women, love, and sex, and, unfortunately, to deal with the consequences of his friends' freedom and experimentation in those categories.

In summary, the historical aspects were interesting, but I'm sure there are other novels or non-fiction accounts that convey the circumstances and effects of the Cultural Revolution with a story-line less driven by testosterone. Another friend who read this book suggested that it might be more of an allegory, a subtle cultural commentary on the ideas of freedom, individualism, and knowledge. I might have enjoyed it more if I had been looking for those deeper threads, but they do indeed run deep, and the surface story was too superficial for my tastes.


Nymeth said...

That's too bad..I'd actually heard good things about this one, so I had high expectations too. I'll now go into it with lower ones, which is always helpful!

Page Turner said...

You never know, you might like it. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I had read it before Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but it was a let down for me after that novel.