The importance of Balzac

I’ve just finished reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie for my book group (great thing about book groups: one reads all kinds of guide_balzacthings that otherwise one wouldn’t). It’s written in such plain, unobtrusive language that it almost reads like a fable or folk-tale, but I think this may in part be down to translation (it was originally written in French). The book follows the experiences of two urban teenage boys, in 1971, sent to the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to be “re-educated”. Books are banned (apart from the Little Red Book), so when the boys discover a suitcase of Western novels, including Balzac’s, it opens their eyes to a whole new world.

What’s interesting about this is how little it’s glamourised; books about books tend to wax lyrical and assume things about their readers, but here, the boys are hooked simply because they were ignorant of such things and now they are learning. The power of words is huge, but it also has some surprising effects, particularly on the “little Chinese seamstress” with whom they fall in love; the implication at the end, I think, is that one can’t control literature or what it does to people, either by banning books or by reading them.

I didn’t know much about the period, though the author is clearly drawing onhis own experiences of being “re-educated” (an ironic term, since education is just what is wasn’t), but found an article in the New York Times about the film of this book very interesting.  There’s also some useful information about Mao’s Cultural Revolution here.

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