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Dai Sijie, an expatriate Chinese victim of the Cultural Revolution presently living in France, has written a new novel, just translated from the French, telling the story of two teenagers swept into this horrific program in the early 1970s. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, as one might expect, gives a vivid picture of the suffering and injustice of this mad, destructive period in Chinese history. What gives this slim novel its genuine appeal, though, is the almost magical way in which it draws comedy and romance out of such oppressive circumstances and illustrates the events in utterly convincing detail.
The narrator and his friend Luo have been relocated to a small peasant commune on Phoenix Mountain, deep in the rural countryside of Szechuan province. They live in a house built on stilts above a pig sty and have to carry pails of sloshing excrement up narrow dangerous trails for use as fertilizer in high altitude fields. Because they're the children of prominent physicians and a famous dentist respectively, their chances of ever being released from this condition of quasi-slavery seem slim.
The young men prove resourceful, however, and use their creativity and wits to marginally improve their condition. The village headman, a former opium grower now converted into a Communist functionary, becomes fascinated with a little crowing rooster alarm clock in their possession, and insists that it be used to wake up the village for work. They then parlay this obsession on the part of the vulgar ruffian to get permission occasionally to visit the largest local town to see the bad North Korean propaganda movies that seem to be the only acceptable entertainment. They then reenact the stories for the illiterate villagers.
With these modest opportunities, the narrator and Luo can move about freely enough to make contact with the two truly liberating sources of pleasure named in the novel's title. They get to know the most attractive girl in the area, the daughter of the region's tailor, and they also discover a precious cache of forbidden French novels in Chinese translation in the possession of another youth who is also being re-educated nearby. Luo's romance with the tailor's daughter, the Little Seamstress, is both an erotic and emotional adventure for the young people, with serious consequences and ironic twists. The comic machinations the teenagers use to gain access to the books, not to mention the powerful impression that such literature has on their naive and impressionable minds, produce a complex meta-narrative in which the French characters, particularly the Count of Monte Cristo, gradually infiltrate the story.
The effect and the genre of this poignant and absorbing novel are difficult to categorize; the closest I can come is pathetic comedy. The uncompromising presentation of ignorance, filth, and political oppression is definitely disturbing, but the exuberant humanity of all the characters, even the least appealing ones, reminds us that the human comedy is the true leveling force that connects people from all cultures. It's impossible for any reader not to laugh as the two protagonists, clumsily disguised as party cadres, try to con "genuine peasant songs" out a drunken miller in his lice-infested hovel. They also manage to improvise a dentist's drill out of a manual sewing machine to simultaneously treat the headman's toothache and punish him for his abuse.
Tyranny can suppress much, but as Dai Sijie proves here, vibrant imagination, a sense of humor, and youthful love have an unquenchable power to heal and amuse.
Dr. Bruce G. Nims is a poet, essayist, and Assistant Dean at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster, SC.
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