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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

     by Dai, Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Two Chinese youths, one named Luo and the narrator who is never named, are shipped off to the countryside to be "re- educated" by peasants. The work that they do is incredibly difficult and they live each moment dreaming of a day that they don't even know will ever come, the day that they can return to the city. The Little Seamstress is a beautiful girl who falls in love with the animated and life-loving Luo and who has dreams of shaping her "country nature" to that of a sophisticated modern woman. One day Luo and the narrator discover that another young man being re-educated at a nearby village has a secret stash of outlawed Western fiction hidden inside an old suitcase. The two young men are delighted and dive into the collection, which includes several titles by Balzac. Each book engulfs their lives, gives their dreary days meaning, and opens up both their minds as well as the mind of the Little Seamstress to a whole world of possibilities in the form of love, hope, and individuality. 

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, children were wrenched from families labeled as "revolutionary" and sent to work in places like rice paddies and coal mines so that they could learn what it meant to be a peasant. Dai Sijie was himself re-educated, and though this novel is a work of fiction, each detail is so real that it seems autobiographical. Full of symbolism, this beautiful short novel is captivating from the first page to the last. Readers of literary fiction and those interested in modern China will be especially attracted to this book.

Reviewed by aw, 3/02. Other reviews by aw.