Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

This is my first read for the What's in a Name Challenge. I really didn't know that much about this book when I picked it up. It's been on my shelves for a while, and it fits the category of "a book with a profession in its title." From the brief blurb on the back of the book, I thought I would really love this one. However, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I did like it. There just wasn't as much about books as I thought there would be.

Two lifelong friends find themselves sent to a tiny village on a mountainside far away from their family and the life they knew in the city. This was part of the "reeducation" process of the Cultural Revolution. The children of famous doctors, scientists, and other academic types were taken from their homes and sent to live with peasants in the hopes that they would forget their bourgeois lifestyle and embrace the communist ideal.

The boys make an acquaintance in a neighboring village who is also a victim of the "reeducation" process. The boys suspect that he is harboring a dangerous secret and soon discover that he has contraband hidden in a suitcase. Yep, you guessed it -- he has books. All literature, especially western literature was banned during this period. The only approved reading material was books by Chairman Mao and his followers. The boys finally persuade their friend to let them borrow some books, which they devour. In addition to Balzac, they have books by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and Romain Rolland. These books open the boys' eyes to a new world. Even though they had lived in the city, they were very naive and knew little of the ways of the world, especially when it came to women and sex.

Luo is smitten with the daughter of a tailor in one of the villages on the mountain and begins daily visits to read to her from Balzac. He is trying to impress her, and he also feels that he is doing her a favor by educating her, as well. They have a brief, albeit intense romance. I won't go into more detail here for fear of ruining the story. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn't love it the way I thought I would. I enjoyed learning a little more about the Chinese culture during this period in addition to the literary references. I'd be interested to know what you think if you've read it.


Nymeth said...

It's too bad it wasn't as good as you were hoping. But it still sounds like a good read.

Lisa said...

nymeth, I think it's actually a case of expectations being too high and not a reflection on the book.

Andi said...

I didn't love it. I read it several years ago and was largely underwhelmed. Oh well! They can't all be winners (though I was SO hoping).

JoAnn said...

My book club read this in 2003 and, checking my book journal, I rated it 7/10. It was a good book, but not great. I remember being slightly disappointed in it, but my expectations may have been too high.

I like how you have your challenges and book lists in the sidebar - good idea!

Tara said...

For me, this was also a book I liked, didn't love; it didn't really live up to the hype surrounding it.

Literary Feline said...

I read this one five years ago last month. I probably wouldn't haven't remembered that fact had I not recently been thumbing through my old journal. I remember liking the book quite a bit when I read it. It's too bad it wasn't quite what you were hoping for. That happens to me sometimes too.

Lisa said...

andi, I had high hopes for it, too. I think that may have been my problem. I was expecting too much. But, I still think he could have done more with it.

joann, "good, but not great" is my thought exactly.

literary feline, I may have felt differently if I had read it at a different time, but I really think it boils down to having too high an expectation.