Dai Sijie, "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (Knopf, 2001).

 

            This is the story of three young men who, as suspect sons of bourgeois professionals, are sent into the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution to be re-educated by peasants.  One of them (whose mother is a poet) has a secret suitcase that is full of objects that puts them all in jeopardy: Chinese translations of forbidden Western classics, including the works of Balzac.  Luo is not only determined to steal and to read them all--Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Emily Brontė--but he also wants to use them to transform the Little Seamstress from a simple mountain girl into a cultured young woman.  The contents of the suitcase are forbidden fruit indeed.

            Dai Sijie, who left China for France in 1984, was himself "re-educated," which helps to account for the unique mixture of comedy and poignancy in this elegant little book.  Although the author is principally a film-maker, this, his first novel, is a brilliant success; and many of its scenes are already cinematic.  The book will soon be made into a film.  Published last year in France, it was an instant sensation; and the first American printing in September sold out almost immediately. 

            Its success is, however, a triumph of tone, atmosphere, and charm over structure.  Or, perhaps, the structure of the book is itself a revolt against the structure of the Western novel.

            One day the narrator decides he will accompany Luo to the village of the beautiful Little Seamstress.  Both men are terrified of heights, and the journey is perilous:

            "By the time we reached the perilous path Luo had told me about, the soft morning breeze had made way for a mountain gale.  I gasped when I saw the risk Luo had been taking every day.  Even I started trembling when I set foot on the ridge.

            "My left boot dislodged a stone, and almost at the same moment my right boot pushed some clods of earth over the side.  They tumbled into the depths, and it was some time before we heard them hitting the bottom at different intervals.  The sound reverberated into the distance, first on the right, then on the left.

            "I should never have looked down...."

            Other scenes, such as those of Luo and the Seamstress swimming in mountain pools, are beautifully sensual; but this is a book that simply approaches in order then to avoid any overt sexuality or violence.  It is determined to be a delicate and humorous book, and it succeeds brilliantly.

            What makes the novel structurally odd, even a bit baroque, is that suddenly, toward the end, the first-person narration gives way to "The Old Miller's Story," "Luo's Story," and "The Little Seamstress's Story."  The first of these especially, in which an old miller watches the young lovers bathing, suggests that what we've been reading all along is a rustic, pastoral tale, something not to be mistaken for the high art of Balzac.

            Nevertheless, the Little Seamstress's sudden departure for the city, when she takes literally the one lesson she has learned from Balzac--"a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price"--leaves the reader with at least this uncertainty:  Is this a novel about the intrusion of the West on the pastoral innocence of the East, or is it a novel about the Little Seamstress's determination to appropriate and to make what she will out of the cultural bequests of Europe?

            It's no wonder that in their confusion the young men, left behind, make a bonfire of the books that they have treasured.  Perhaps the Little Seamstress has taught them more than Balzac could.