Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress – Dai Sijie

I bought this book because I thought the cover would make a great subject for a watercolor painting 😊. (Still haven’t got down to doing that 😐)

This quaint novel was the debut offering by Chinese author, Dai Sijie. It was originally written in French and later translated into English in 2001. It was extremely well-received and went on to win several awards. It has been translated into many languages.

What works for this small book is the effervescent and youthful energy of the two protagonists, Luo and his best friend, the narrator.

It gives an insight into China and the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao that resulted in the exile of thousands of young children of educated, professional parents to far off villages for “re-education” amongst peasants.

The boys find themselves in Phoenix Mountain doing gruelling, wretched and back-breaking work. They are aware of invisible eyes following their every move waiting to latch on to any mistake they commit. Their entertainment in this rural setting is limited to the plaintive sound of the violin that miraculously evades detection from the authorities and the vivacious little Chinese Seamstress who’s attention they both crave.

Introduction of Balzac into their life is highly entertaining, and their love for the prohibited, written word is touching. The longing to read and escape into an imaginary and beautiful world coupled with the fear of being caught red-handed and the resultant punishment, have all been poignantly described.

Reading, and the freedom with which one reads, makes one forget the agony of those who are prohibited from doing just that. In the words of the narrator, as he describes the reason for tears in his eyes,

“It was not the Little Seamstress’s predicament that was making me weep…It was hearing the name of Fu Lei, Balzac’s translator – someone I had never met. It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute to the gift bestowed by an intellectual on mankind.”
Beauty of the written word needs an appreciative audience just as desperately as the reader needs a good book….This was my takeaway from this novel, along with the names of many other writers mentioned here, who’s names have been immortalised in the annals of classic literature and who I hadn’t put on my ‘tbr’ list, till now 😊

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