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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Dai Sijie – 6/10

“Years later I learnt that the translator was himself a great writer. Having been forbidden to publish his own works for political reasons, he spent the rest of his life translating French novels.”

balzacThe Book Accumulator raves about this book. I’ve seen him buy copies to have on hand to give away to people, just in case he gets the chance. Normally in German. So when this came up on Bookmooch in English, I was pretty excited.

Two city boys are sent to a mountain village for re-education during China’s Cultural Revolution. They encounter the beautiful daughter of the local tailor and manage to steal a stash of Western classics in translation; as they gorge themselves on the forbidden writing, they are released from their grim everyday lives.

I have to say, I was a bit underwhelmed by this book.

I can see why it appeals – all that French literature, the idea of secretive, reclusive, covert education, these two boys suddenly released from their academically cloistered existence into the classics of Western literature. The humour of the pranks with which they release themselves from their dire situation is spot-on – the violin ditty called “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao”, the alarm clock on which they change the time so many times that they lose track of what the actual time is and their cruel treatment of the village head man during his dental operation.

And yet, it lacked bite – there was no grand climax, no overarching fight against anything. In fact, it was probably the last few chapters that put me off. The sad conclusion of the love affair is somehow not in keeping with the rest of the book, when the Little Seamstress has been so graceful, delicate, gentle all along. There is no triumphant release from the village; instead, the boys seem to surrender to the re-education, their spirits broken.

Worth a try – my grumbles are quite specific. And I still think it’s a 6/10 read overall.

Additional information:
Copy from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Anchor Books, 184 pages (paperback)
Order Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstressfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

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