It’s been a long time since we read a book as seductively beguiling as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Set amid the ferment of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China during the early 1970s, the book is a bewitching story of the power of books and of life in the countryside for two teenage boys banished to a remote mountain village, 100km from the nearest small town.
The 60s and early 70s were indeed bad days for books and all intellectuals in China.
Barring the Great Leader Mao’s Little Red Book and a few basic books on industry and agriculture all other books were verboten and often burnt.
Possession or even discussion of prohibited books meant certain and severe punishment.
More powerful than even love or friendship, books and the stories they tell liberate the mind and evoke new desires that never existed previously.
The two boys Luo and the narrator are sent off by the powers that be to a hard life in a backward mountain village Phoenix in the Sky as part of Mao’s quixotic ‘reeducation’ campaign for intellectuals.
The village is so backward that even a clock is a novelty to the locals there.
Forced to work in the fields or engage in tasks like carrying pails of shit, the boys find nothing but misery in their new milieu.
Joy, solace and relief from their punishment come via a suitcase of western classics the boys steal from an acquaintance.
Balzac, Dumas, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Gogol, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Stendahl, Kipling and other writers evoke a frisson of joy amidst the boys’ dreary existence in the village in their house on stilts with a fat sow living below them.
The books also become the medium to endow ‘culture’ to the tailor’s daughter, the little Chinese seamstress from a neighboring village whom both boys love.
Declares Luo upon finding the stash of books:
With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again.
Prophetic words. And how.
Like a lot of fine books, this one too has a poignant ending.
Author Dai Sijie has cast such a spell over us in this riveting story full of humor and vivid descriptions that tonight we intend to watch the film version of this book.
The Chinese movie is available at Netflix on DVD and via Instant Play.
Oh, the director of the film version of the book is none other than author Dai Sijie, who moved from China to France in 1984. By the way, the book was originally written in French and translated by Ina Rilke.
The book is likely autobiographical since author Dai Sijie was himself re-educated between 1971 and 1974, the same time frame as events in the book.
SearchIndia.com strongly recommends Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (184-pages in paperback). If you live in the U.S., the book should definitely be available at your county library.
Wake Up, Bollywood
Week after week our remorseless Bollywood folks churn out one crappy movie after another based on asinine, juvenile, infantile plots.
How wonderful would it be to see a Bollywood adaptation of this fine book, set somewhere in the mountains of North India or the Niligiris hills in the south.
Here’s our recommendations for the cast and crew:
Director – Vishal Bharadwaj
Tailor – Pankaj Kapoor
Headman – Om ‘maid-f*cker’ Puri
Luo – Shahid Kapoor
Narrator – Chandan Roy Sanyal
Little Chinese Seamstress – [Find a new girl since the current crop of starlets are utterly talentless]
Old Miller – Naseeruddin Shah
But don’t hold your breath for Bollywood to embrace such fine stories.
Tis’ most unlikely those unimaginative bozos will ever see the light in such delights as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.