Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress (2002) by Dai Sijie is a great short read.
The book is told from the perspective of the unnamed protagonist who has been sent with his best friend to a faraway village in the period during Cultural Revolution in China. Under Mao’s “re-education”, the two teenagers of 17 and 18 are here to do gruelling farm work. Soon the two young men meet a female seamstress around their age. The three of them strike up a friendship but both the narrator and his friend has romantic feelings for the seamstress though the narrator’s feelings are stronger. Together, they begin to get immersed in books and the narrator has a particular gift for storytelling. But all around, they face oppression of their thoughts, words, interests and expression. The finding of a book full of 19th century novels brightens their days but also puts them in danger under the regime in place.
This book is clearly very accurately written. The author has lived this experience as he was “re-educated” in China from 1971-1974. The book is written in a very matter-of-fact way and shows the harrowing fear of being found out and the desire to be free to be yourself, to be allowed to think, to learn and to speak without fear of something terrible happening to you. It is a stunningly written book which combines history, literature and coming-of-age themes with themes like oppression and adversity.
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