The Book Junkie

I enjoyed Dai Silje's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress." The story is beautifully written and is both enlightening and engaging.

The book tells the story of an un-named protagonist, his friend Luo, and the also un-named little seamstress. Set in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, the narrator/protagonist tells of his life in the village where he and his friend Luo are being "reeducated". In their village, the boys spend their days hauling buckets of filth up and down a hill. After discovering their talent at storytelling, though, the village headman gives the boys a reprieve: they get to take regular trips into the city to watch movies. They are then required to tell the stories from the movies to the villagers. During one trip, they meet the little seamstress, and both Luo and the narrator are charmed.

In the course of events, a friend of the boys (whom they call Four-Eyes for his glasses) gives them a book. It is a translation of Balzac's "Pere Goriot"--Western literature, to which neither Luo nor our narrator have been exposed yet. When they read the book, both are awakened to the joys of taking a voyage via books. They learn of places they've never seen, people they've never heard of, and experiences they've never had. Not surprisingly, they boys quickly become addicted to books. They repeatedly beg Four-Eyes to loan them more, but Four-Eyes refuses, afraid that the government will find out and punish him for owning the books. It isn't until Four-Eyes is leaving the area that Luo and the narrator manage to steal Four-Eyes's suitcase full of books. Once they have the stash, our two young men become enchanted by the spell of books. They share the stories they read with the little seamstress, with whom both boys are in love, but who loves Luo in return. Luo hopes to help the little seamstress learn and become an intellectual. In the end, he meets his goal, but with an unexpected twist. Is the ending happy or sad?

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is a lovely story. It was fun to read, and I feel enriched for having read it. The end feels abrupt and left me questioning what the outcome was, but that fits with the novel as a whole. It's a fairly short book, so it doesn't take long to read, but it's a good book to sit and savor. I would have enjoyed more denoument at the end, but I was satisfied despite that. 

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