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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

by Dai Sijie
Borrow Borrow
An enchanting literary debut—already an international best-seller.
At the height of Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for "re-education." The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.
But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.
From within the hopelessness and terror of one of the darkest passages in human history, Dai Sijie has fashioned a beguiling and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit, the wonder of romantic awakening and the magical power of storytelling.
From the Hardcover edition.
An enchanting literary debut—already an international best-seller.
At the height of Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for "re-education." The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.
But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.
From within the hopelessness and terror of one of the darkest passages in human history, Dai Sijie has fashioned a beguiling and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit, the wonder of romantic awakening and the magical power of storytelling.
From the Hardcover edition.
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    9 - 12

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Excerpts-
  • From the cover PART I

    The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin. Among the possessions brought to this mountain village by the two "city youths"-which was how they saw Luo and me-it was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.

    One of the peasants came forward with an oil lamp to facilitate identification of the strange object. The headman held the violin upright and peered into the black interior of the body, like an officious customs officer searching for drugs. I noticed three blood spots in his left eye, one large and two small, all the same shade of bright red.

    Raising the violin to eye level, he shook it, as though convinced something would drop out of the sound holes. His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.

    Just about everyone in the village had come to the house on stilts way up on the mountain to witness the arrival of the city youths. Men, women and children swarmed inside the cramped room, clung to the windows, jostled each other by the door. When nothing fell out of my violin, the headman held his nose over the sound holes and sniffed long and hard. Several bristly hairs protruding from his left nostril vibrated gently.

    Still no clues.

    He ran his calloused fingertips over one string, then another . . . The strange resonance froze the crowd, as if the sound had won some sort of respect.

    "It's a toy," said the headman solemnly.

    This verdict left us speechless. Luo and I exchanged furtive, anxious glances. Things were not looking good.

    One peasant took the "toy" from the headman's hands, drummed with his fists on its back, then passed it to the next man. For a while my violin circulated through the crowd and we-two frail, skinny, exhausted and risible city youths-were ignored. We had been tramping across the mountains all day, and our clothes, faces and hair were streaked with mud. We looked like pathetic little reactionary soldiers from a propaganda film after their capture by a horde of Communist farm workers.

    "A stupid toy," a woman commented hoarsely.

    "No," the village headman corrected her, "a bourgeois toy."

    I felt chilled to the bone despite the fire blazing in the centre of the room.

    "A toy from the city," the headman continued, "go on, burn it!"

    His command galvanised the crowd. Everyone started talking at once, shouting and reaching out to grab the toy for the privilege of throwing it on the coals.

    "Comrade, it's a musical instrument," Luo said as casually as he could, "and my friend here's a fine musician. Truly."

    The headman called for the violin and looked it over once more. Then he held it out to me.

    "Fogive me, comrade," I said, embarrassed, "but I'm not that good."

    I saw Luo giving me a surreptitious wink. Puzzled, I took my violin and set about tuning it.

    "What you are about to hear, comrade, is a Mozart sonata," Luo announced, as coolly as before.

    I was dumbfounded. Had he gone mad? All music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago. In my sodden shoes my feet turned to ice. I shivered as the cold tightened its grip on me.

    "What's a sonata?" the headman asked warily.

    "I don't know," I faltered. "It's Western."

    "Is it a song?"

    "More or less," I replied evasively.

    At that instant the glint of the vigilant Communist reappeared in the headman's eyes, and his voice turned hostile.

    "What's the name of this song of...
About the Author-
  • Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker who was himself "re-educated" between 1971 and 1974.
    He left China in 1984 for France, where he has lived and worked ever since. This, his first novel, was an overnight sensation when it appeared in France in 2000, becoming an immediate best-seller and winning five prizes. Rights to the novel have been sold in nineteen countries, and it is soon to be made into a film.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine When two boys discover a suitcase of banned Western literature (translated) during their re-education in the remote countryside of China, anything is possible. Enlightenment falls upon the Cultural Revolution with thunder and drums, depicting as well the glory of carnal love and, more subtly, the idea of individualism. Both boys retell the stories to the villagers and earn recognition from the elders, as well as from the beautiful little seamstress. Read with the tenderness it deserves by B.D. Wong, the tale unfolds to inter-mingle East and West with touching results. This is a book that can be listened to over and over to hear the missed inflections and the astonishingly vivid details. B.H.B. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award, Winner of 2004 ALA/ YALSA Recording (c) AudioFile 2003, Portland, Maine
  • —Los Angeles Times Book Review “An unexpected miracle–a delicate, and often hilarious, tale.”
  • The Washington Post Book World “A funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel . . . about the power of art to enlarge our imaginations.”
  • —The New York Times Book Review “Poetic and affecting. . . . The descriptions of life in this strangest of times and places are so riveting that the reader longs for more.”
  • San Francisco Chronicle Book Review “[A] thrilling and . . . truly great work. . . . [A] richly complex fable.”
  • —The Boston Globe “Gives the rest of the world a glimpse into that dark place where the human spirit continues, against all odds, to shine its light.”
  • The Chicago Tribune “A wonderful novel . . . formed by detailed layering and exquisite craftsmanship, like a beautifully tailored garment.”
  • The New York Times “Poignant, humorous, and romantic.”
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer “Seduces readers into its world. . . . [A] very wise little story of love and illusion.”


    From the Trade Paperback edition.
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