Having knocked off Ian McEwan, and slipped the slender Amsterdam back in its slot, I linked my hands behind my back and began to wander along the bookcases, letting my eyes drift over the names and titles. Edith Wharton, Anais Nin, Colette, Anthony Trollope, Anthony Bourdain…
I reached out and extracted Dai Sijie’s little novel, intrigued as much by the bold and attractive cover design as I was by the enigmatic title. I then beat a quick retreat to my couch, where I threw myself down violently and turned to the first page.
Perhaps an hour or two later I was finished.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Hey, yeah!
This deceptively simple and short novel is filled with complex themes and powerful ideas. The value of literature and the impact it can have runs throughout, but woven about this central thread are explorations of love and jealousy, sadism and friendship, and the coming of age of two young men. All of this is set in an incredibly alien time and place (rural Maoist China), and yet the core elements are so universal that Luo and the protagonist seem completely familiar.
It is a testament to Mr. Sijie’s writing skills that he is able to pack his novel with so much, and so effortlessly. This is the rare novel that does not invite easy criticism, that does not fail in some aspect and open itself to casual analysis. It has the powerful solidity and simplicity of a fable, but presents complex issues and matters that resonate and strike the reader as he turns the pages.
Perhaps what worked best for me was the juxtaposition of the idealistic and the harsh reality of the world the boys live in. They slave away in lethal coal mines, live over a pig sty, suffer from severe illnesses and have virtually no friends but each other. This is a harsh, unforgiving world, one with dire consequences for those who pursue forbidden ideals. The desire to read, to be free, and to love are made all the more heroic when contextualized within this world, and it is this that helps Mr. Sijie keep his lofty themes grounded and magnificent instead of mushy and unconvincing.
An excellent novel, short and sweet and packing a hell of a punch.