Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Ina Rilke

This book is about a love of books. What makes it different, however, is that it takes place in Communist China in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was a time when most books were outlawed and any of the educated class were sent for re-education as laborers in rural China. Mao, the leader at the time, thought it best that these educated younger people be put to work where they could cause no trouble or rebellion. The author is able to describe this extremely well as he himself experienced re-education before moving to France.

The book itself involves three main characters; the narrator, the narrator’s friend Luo, and the Little Chinese Seamstress. The narrator and his friend have been sent to a rural part of China for their re-education and as such have become laborers in the fields there, and for a short time, workers in a mine.

The first part of the book has a lot of detail. We see the narrator’s violin come into play, Luo develops malaria while working in the mine, and just in general there is a lot of hardship for them. Somehow, in the last two parts this is lost and their life becomes quite a bit easier and freer despite not being able to return to their families. While this is wonderful for them, it seems a little unrealistic and you wonder what happens to these key elements.

The main focus of the novel deals with the books though. Another person who has been sent to their village for re-education has a secret suitcase full of books. And both the narrator and Luo want to get their hands on it. The narrator loves the stories and Luo wants to educate his girlfriend, the little seamstress so she can become more refined like a city girl. They do manage to succeed in procuring the books but it takes a lot of finagling and deceit on their part.

They love the tales of the french author Balzac the best. These are the stories in which Luo charms the seamstress’s heart. There are other novels of course, but they are not mentioned nearly as much saving for Dumas’ Count of Monte Christo. When they get themselves in trouble, and the seamstress too, they question whether the books are at fault.

Dai’s characters are interesting to a point. I actually found the narrator kind of boring and even in the first chapter, for some reason thought he was female. There is something feminine to me about the way he tells the story. The other characters I did like, especially the seamstress as I found her to be quite independent for what was going on in her country, and just being a woman in an oppressed society.

The writing in this novel is very good. While he does make some use of description, Dai doesn’t overdo it. Its easy to picture the scenes and places these characters are in, but he doesn’t describe every fabric print, speck of dirt, or blade of grass. Since its told by the narrator it is written in the first person. I’m normally not a big fan of first person but I think he did a good job with it in this case. My only complaint on the writing was that I thought it could be fleshed out more, it was a surprisingly quick read.

Overall I wouldn’t say its my favorite novel. It probably wouldn’t even make my top ten. But it is a good book and provides an interesting look into that period of history in China. It was amazing to see that despite what decade it was, much of the living was still very primitive. It was also amazing how much one little book could get you in trouble. The whole thought makes me glad that I can read anything I’d like.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Copyright 2000
197 pages