1971: Mao's cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to 're-education' camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.
In 1971 Mao's campaign against the intellectuals is at its height. Our narrator and his best friend, Luo, distinctly unintellectual but guilty of being the sons of doctors, have been sent to a remote mountain village to be 'reeducated'. The kind of education that takes place among the peasants of Phoenix Mountain involves carting buckets of excrement up and down precipitous, foggy paths, but the two seventeen-year-olds have a violin and their sense of humour to keep them going. Further distraction is provided by the attractive daughter of the local tailor, possessor of a particularly fine pair of feet. Their true re-education starts, however, when they discover a comrade's hidden stash of classics of great nineteenth-century Western literature - Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy and others, in Chinese translation. They need all their ingenuity to get their hands on the forbidden books, but when they do their lives are turned upside down. And not only their lives: after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, the Little Seamstress will never be the same again. Without betraying the truth of what happened, Dai Sijie transforms the bleak events of China's Cultural Revolution into an enchanting and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit and the magical power of great storytelling.
Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a film maker and novelist, who left China in 1984 for France where he now lives and works. He is the author of the international bestseller, Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize) - which he made into a film - Mr Muo's Travelling Couch (winner of the Prix Femina) and Once on a Moonless Night.
"A completely beguiling novel. always giving the reader a sense of being there. Very engaging" Independent "Wholly delightful, intelligent, funny and unexpected. A remarkable book, offering sheer delight" Scotsman "A simple story, seductively told, it touches and lifts up the beauty of human experience far beyond the mountains of Western China in which the story is set" Times Literary Supplement "Highly original and sweetly charming" The Times "If you read only one novel, choose this one: it's worth a hundred" Le Figaro
As its title implies, this is almost an oriental fairytale, set in the unlikely period of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Two teenage youths, both sons of respectable medical families, well-educated and therefore suspected of decadence, are removed from their families and despatched up country for ideological re-education i.e. juvenile boot camp. There, near a cottage belonging to a peasant whose daughter they have befriended, the boys discover a secret cache of the world's literature: not just the Balzac of the title, but Dickens, Gogol, Kipling, Rousseau and lots more. One of the boys is fortunate enough to strike up an affair with the beautiful young seamstress, while his friend regales her father with the thrilling adventures of the Count of Monte Cristo he has just read. The book sparkles with unexpected wit, keeping a deft, light touch even in the occasional hair-raising scenes, such as the occasion when the boys wreak some revenge on the bullying village headman. The latter, afflicted with raging toothache, demands that the youths (with their quasi-medical backgrounds) should clean and fill his rotted molar. They agree with instant relish, and the gleeful sadism with which they punish the old ignoramus is a joy to read. The author himself was re-educated in a similar manner in his youth; it is tempting to feel he has drawn heavily from his experiences here! It would be betraying a secret to reveal the sour-sweet end of this enchanting fable of young love where the East is Red. The book can be devoured at a sitting, but it sticks in the head for a very long time. (Kirkus UK)
Short-listed for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2002
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