The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 2, 2003

Tasting the forbidden fruit
Vikramdeep Johal

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie. Translated from the French by Ina Rilke. Vintage Books, UK. Pages 172. £ 3.95.

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressTWO heavyweights figure prominently in this novel, one of them being the legendary novelist mentioned in the title. The other is Chairman Mao’s brainchild, bearing a name long enough to rival the Great Wall of China — the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Now what has a 19th century French writer got to do with a 20th century Chinese revolution? Ask the Red Guards, an army of nasty nursemaids eager to bring up Mao’s baby by fair means or foul and protect it from the "evil influence" of the West. Forget about freedom of expression, you are not even free to read literature of your choice. Books of Western writers are seized and set on fire in public because these are supposed to be, pardon the pun, inflammable.

The guinea pigs of this ambitious experiment are the city youths, who have been banished to the countryside to learn from the peasants, to get "re-educated." The young men have to sweat their guts out in the fields and unsafe coalmines, hoping against hope that they would soon return to the city. Under the circumstances, it is not hard to imagine one of them seeking solace in the novels of Balzac and Co, which he has locked away in his suitcase.

The all-important suitcase, belonging to a boy called Four-Eyes, catches the fancy of two youths, the narrator and his friend Luo. In dire need of some distraction from the drudgery, they devise schemes to make him part with his treasure. A whole new world opens up before them when they get to taste a forbidden fruit, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet. Having been bombarded all along with revolutionary blather, this story of "awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love" sweeps them off their feet and kick-starts their unofficial re-education.


Keen to test its power, they set out to charm the Little Seamstress, a lovely but unrefined village girl, and turn her into a lady. Balzac’s magic works — the girl’s metamorphosis takes place — but it works rather too well. I won’t reveal it all, for the ending is quite unexpected, giving an ironic twist to the story.

A revolution synonymous with violence and repression can’t have a funny side — or can it? Take this episode: To impress the powers that be, a folk-song which goes like this: An old louse/ What does it fear?/ It fears boiling water/ Boiling bubbling water, is cleverly "revolutionised" by Four-Eyes as: Little bourgeois lice,/ What do they fear?/ They fear the boiling wave of the proletariat. Similarly, the narrator, while reading out novels to the Little Seamstress, introduces little inventions of his own when he feels that "good old Balzac is running out of steam." The satire is dead on target in the scene where some village bumpkins, on seeing a portrait of Balzac, wonder whether he is Marx, Lenin or Stalin!

Had this novel only been about the ravages of the (un)Cultural Revolution, it wouldn’t have been of much interest or significance. It is basically a parable about the futility of exercising control in the face of man’s eternal desire for freedom. What further elevates it to the level of a potential classic is its playful exploration of the relationship between life and literature. It reminds one of Goethe’s words: "Man can find no better retreat from the world than art, and man can find no stronger link with the world than art." At the end of the day, Balzac influences the actions of the protagonists much more crucially than the other heavyweight.

It is undoubtedly a remarkable debut novel by filmmaker Dai Sijie, who was among one of the youths whose formal education was disrupted by the revolution in the late 1960s. Re-education proved to be a blessing in disguise for him and his peers as it broadened their experience and increased their awareness of the socio-political forces at work. Those troubled times have had a profound influence on their art.

The novel’s transatlantic success bears testimony to the West’s increasing recognition of Chinese literature and cinema. In the past decade or so, we have seen Gao Xingjian becoming the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize, Ha Jin bagging the US National Book Award, and filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou mesmerising international audiences. The beneficiaries of this "Sinomania" have mostly been the émigrés — Xingjian and Sijie are based in France, Ha Jin in the USA — while those living in China have been enjoying some creative freedom but undeservedly, no worldwide fame. It would be good if the latter also get a place in the sun, for a voice that goes unheard is no better than a voice silenced.