This slim, charming novel about one of the darkest periods in recent Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, manages to combine ugliness and brutishness with a life-saving thread of hope and young love and dreams.
It is 1971, and 2 young men, teenaged sons of then-reviled intellectuals, are sent off to be re-educated, in a remote corner of China. Their new home, a dirt-poor village, is dominated by the poetically named “Phoenix of the Sky”. In other words a forbidding slightly terrifying mountain, whose presence and moods dominate the novel.
The 2 youngsters survive in the village.
Their smuggled-in violin provides some moments of relief from the otherwise soul-destroying manual labour to which they are subjected. When they chance upon a hidden trunk, filled with books – books, forbidden books – of translations of 19th century French classics, they grasp at the chance to read, after months of privation.
Books and stories and weaving happiness through words and music is the leitmotiv of this book. Luo (the narrator’s friend) is a natural story-teller, and once the trust of the suspicious village headman has been won, the 2 young men are occasionally dispatched to the neighbouring small town of Yong Jing to watch whatever film is showing. They then return, and tell the story to the villagers over many sessions.
This power to tell stories wins Luo the heart of the Little Seamstress, the daughter of an itinerant tailor. She is far and away the prettiest girl on the mountain, and Luo endures terrifying walks up and down the mountain to court her.
He reads to her, tells her stories, all in an attempt to “better” her, and their love develops under the wistful eye of the narrator and the spying eye of an old miller.
The end of the novel is dramatic and sad.
The Little Seamstress walks – at times literally runs – down the mountain, out of the book, and out of their lives.
And a heart-broken, drunken Luo burns the books that had kindled their love.
Charming, full of descriptions that bring to life the damp, cold, poor countryside of Mao’s Revolutionary China, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is published by Vintage Books.
The novel was originally published in French in 2000 and the English translation in 2001. The paperback costs £7.99
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