Book: Balzac and the Little Seamstress (2002)

Author: Dai Sijie

Pages: 147 pgs.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, China

Rating: ★ ★  ½ ☆ ☆☆

Ideas are exciting, especially when they’re infused with scope and grandness. Ideas are essential; for good ideas can potentially birth great results. The perpetual falls and hubris of every wave of human creation has rested on ideas. And when we have the chance to step beyond the criticisms of our own devices and sink into the consciousness of ourselves, others, the world around us, past us, and above us, we can transfer our ideas into timeless communication. This is the slate of the Artist and the soul of his or her Art. Yet, often times a portentous disconnect creeps in and suffocates the greatness that could have been for a tangible mediocrity that ultimately surfaces. When great ideas suffer with a lack of vertebrae to support it, what results is a visceral disenchantment that penetrates into the marrow of a badly postured form – and that is how Dai Sijie’s grandly-illusive and ambitious novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress plays out, though not without its clear merits.

Set during the Cultural Revolution of China, incited by the Maoist regime, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress follows two young boys –the unnamed narrator and his best friend Luo – who are sent to be “re-educated” because their parents were dictated to be “enemies of the state”. Both boys are talented artists: one being a violinist, and the other a master orator/story-teller. Contextually, this is supposed to be crucial. The Cultural Revolution of China was a dismantling event that tore up the economic and social roots of the Chinese nation and people while also actively silencing those thought to have been proponent of bourgeois thoughts or interests. Another element of this violent and ideological struggle was the relocation of millions of urban youth to the mountains or country area where they were to be taught the agrarian way of life; where the sun rose and set with sweat-filled days plowing, tending, mining, and sowing. There was no need for art, spiritualism, intellectualism, or math, or science, or anything else here, for not only did the system forbid it, but time wouldn’t allow it.

“The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers — more’s the pity.”

This was the crux where Sijie planted the bulbs for his tale. The two boys were then banished into the pallid, thin air of the mountains – surrounded by the thick lush of shrubbery, and encompassed by the extreme terrain that taunted the inexperienced – where both struggle with their new reassignment not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. They find themselves stuck within the unfortunate chasm of bad Fortuna and destiny where many perish silently; it’s at this point that fate begins to seem very real even though it continually adorns an innocuous mask of possibility, not just mere coincidence. Yet the narrative isn’t about the fatalistic laws that harbored doom, but the importance of inverting them (or at least the possibility of it existing), through the power of Art which liberates the caged bird, the captured soul, or in this case, the Modern-Sisyphus-like boys.

“I hadn’t expected that a tiny glimmer of hope for the future could transform someone so utterly.”

Destined to work day-in-and-day-out doing unflattering tasks – like carrying buckets of human and animal excrement up and down the serpentine paths of the proud mountain, or hunting for coal down in the mines where the pillars holding the foundation were just as feeble as the emaciated villagers shoveling away – any prospect to leave looked good. The two boys ached not just from physical pain but from a gaping void that swallowed everything around them. Sijie does a great job painting both the visual conditions and mental snapshots of both characters as tasks are repeated, their spirit exhausted, all while seasons turn bearing another day of futility. Eventually, the boys meet two life-changing events: one, the young daughter of a renowned tailor – the little seamstress, and two, a pandora’s box full of literary treasures. Both events are complementary, essential, and self-defining for every idea and character.

And this is where the flaws begin to manifest in folds. Ideas just remain ideas. Characters remain ideas. Even the fantastic force of fine artistry and literature shrinks back to just an idea. The only proper executions that Sijie manages to keep consistent throughout were the details around the idea, often just seeming nothing more than white noise. Good characters (provided well-written) are reinforced with ideas that define them in a way that is “self”-contained and meaningful, but they shouldn’t just be reduced to some singular, static idea or representation. The seamstress is a representation; a titular representation that served to divulge some secrets, some themes, but never appeared as a full-fledged, living girl beyond the palpable descriptions Luo and the unnamed narrator talk about. She is introduced as uncultured, but beautiful, and Luo takes it upon himself to “re-culture” and “re-educate” her. Meanwhile, she is continuously depicted in a static light that wants to leap into different strokes, but remains grounded in one position; even with the contrived metamorphoses Sijie wants us to believe she goes through, and more importantly, the devolution of change she quietly plants within the boys.

Then there are the two boys, who represented the idea of two disillusioned, spiritually exhausted youth seeking meaning and identity in a system that is actively trying to eradicate it. The narrative crafts and resolves these drawn out ideas, but does them by sacrificing the beating heart and value. Humans beget ideas, not the other way around. Sijie must have been extremely ambitious with what he wanted to do with this novel, but in an effort to coalesce everything, he underestimated the importance of vital elements. The boys – the literal artists of this narrative – remain hopelessly underwhelming; caught between Sijie’s whims and follies. This is in every sense a coming-of-age story yet it fails to recognize the importance of sublime metamorphoses (or lack of) or the vitality of “Real” conveyance and development. There is love. There is heartbreak. There is loss of innocence. There is perspective. There is meaning found and meaning lost. There is change. Yet, none of it matters. It is these flesh-factors that are hopelessly missing bringing forth the aforesaid disconnect into the periphery of the reader.

Pondering upon the mishaps of this novel, I can’t help but be reminded of the very different, but weirdly relevant novel One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenistyn. I’m sure there are people questioning my sanity at this comparison, but I can point to this specific title as one that does everything right that Sijie must have wanted to do. Ivan too is stuck within the confines of systematic humiliation and degradation. Of course, the novel is set within Soviet gulags where the stakes are much higher than the boys of Sijie, but their plights and internal yearnings are very similar. Both set of characters are faced with trials of self, doomed to scourge the hard earth for morsels of meaning and purpose. Both works centralize around the oppression of the mind and self, which can easily translate into more of a collective statement about the systematic oppression of humanity through x or y and how to transcend it or succumb to it. Both Sijie and Solzhenistyn were first-hand survivors of the times they spoke of in their writings, but there is a clear gap in achievement because what Ivan achieves in scope, in transference of that scope and visibility is something that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress highly, highly lacked. Of course, this might be an unfair parallel to make, but it’s absolutely one that has to be made to point towards genuine communication – and the kind of Art that transcends those ideas and the Times that defined those ideas.

However, one thing I must and will applaud Sijie for is his ability to interweave the literary canon within his narrative as a form of aestheticism. Even though the primary purpose of “Balzac” here should have been (and partly did remain) to elevate the innate intuition and understanding of the boys and the seamstress in carving out their “selves”, but it also served to amplify the recurring themes. Through the Arts of others were the characters able to seem somewhat real, somewhat transparent, and somewhat evocative.

“There was nowhere for them to go, for there was no conceivable place where a Romeo and his pregnant Juliet might elude the long arm of the law, nor indeed where they might live the life of Robinson Crusoe attended by a secret agent turned Man Friday. Every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic, fine-meshed net over the whole of China.”

Essentially, what Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress can be summed up as is a story staged in an extremely interesting time but one that fails to fully capitalize on it. And it is more disappointing than a plain bad story or poorly-written tale, because it shows such glimpses of greatness. It shows such promise. It’s retains a certain kind of charm, poetic prose, and alluring ideas – and the ideas were really grand; just they remained within their own self-indulgent paradigm, hiding from reality, refusing to materialize into a story truly worth telling with characters worth listening to.

It’s as the narrator claims (what we desperately seek in all the pages we devour):

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

Yet, my world remained hopelessly the same…