Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Ina Rilke, Sijie Dai

Sometimes a story has such an unsatisfying ending that I would rather have not read it at all.

Of course, there were times when the journey was worth it (eg. abandoned fanfic WIPs), but the denouement of Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress left me highly annoyed. I have questions that will never be answered, mainly on what will happen to the main characters – the two boys Ma and Lou, and their seamstress friend.

But now that I have given it some thought, this story was never about the two boys in the first place. It was about books and the seamstress girl - and when that story ended, so did the book. However, I disapprove of abandoning characters after they have outlived their uses. It’s so lazy.

During the Cultural Revolution in China, when Mao Zedong was at the pinnacle of his glory, he launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered. The universities were closed and all the ‘young intellectuals’, meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be ‘reeducated by the poor peasants’.

Thus you have Ma and Lou, two of many boys sent to rural provinces for the benefit of this “re-education.” It was a time when books were forbidden, except those written by the Great Leader Mao himself or his cronies, and of course our main characters stumbled upon a stash of hidden, forbidden books, some of whom were written by the French author Balzac.

The time setting and cultural environment was fascinating, so alien by today’s standards in the civilised parts of the world.

We were surprised to see how the alarm clock seized the imagination of the peasants. It became an object of veneration, almost. Everyone came to consult the clock, as though our house on stilts were a temple.

Some decisions made by Dai Sijie in the writing of this book was rather strange, imo. Near the end there was a sudden shift of perspectives – most of the tale had narrated by Ma, but suddenly there was a section by Lou, the seamstress, and a random village person, for no discernable reason. He has also created Ma and Lou as the means for books to reach the seamstress, and having done so, cared for them no longer, and if the reader has gotten invested, too bad. As for how the books affected the seamstress – is a different story entirely, but it would’ve been nice to know.