Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a book that I first encountered in the pages of another, Anna and the French Kiss (where Anna and her classmates read it as part of their literature class' study of works in translation), which made it a perfect candidate for my 2017 reading challenge, which has a category for a book mentioned in another book. Even better, I already had a copy that I'd picked up a used book store in New Jersey out of some form of Anna-related nostalgia.
The basic story here is two young men, still in their teenage years, who are exiled from their city homes and parents in Chengdu, China, to be re-educated in the country, in a town on a mountain called the Phoenix of the Sky. While there, they encounter two subjects of note: the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the mountain's renowned tailor who the protagonist's friend Luo immediately falls in love with and dreams of educating; and a secret stash of Western literature in Chinese translation owned by a fellow subject of re-education, which become an instant intrigue to our protagonists.
This is a short book and the story itself is rather simple, and a bit nostalgic. I don't know much about Dai Sijie--my edition is even devoid of the typical "about the author" section--but a quick glance through the Wikipedia article about him shows that a lot of this book was taken from his own life experience. It definitely shows. Sijie himself was sent for re-education, something he did voluntarily since he could have been excused from it (according to Wiki) which might explain the nostalgic tone that permeates the book. Despite the grueling labor that the protagonists engage in, the narrator seems to overall enjoy his time on the Phoenix mountain, controlling time through the little rooster clock the two brought with them, working in the fields, traveling to the main town in the area to see films in order to relate them to the village--really, everything except the coal mines. And of course, the connection with the Little Seamstress brings light into the whole place, as well.
The end of the book was rather unexpected to me, as well. While Luo's relationship with the Seamstress (who never gets a name--really?) immediately raised my eyebrow and my suspicions, I still didn't expect Dai to go down that road, though it definitely added a somber note to what was overall a lighthearted book. And I appreciated the way that he took the Seamstress' development. While Luo had always been in the city and simply saw the books as a way of reconnecting, and the Seamstress as a sort of pet project and not a person in and of herself, the Seamstress saw the books as a way of escape and an indication of what might lay beyond the mountain. While I was a bit surprised by the ending, it was a pleasant sort of surprise, because I thought that it fit.
One thing that I didn't like was the three little chapters about two-thirds of the way through the book. While most of the book is from the point of view of one narrator (who I don't believe was ever named), there are three chapters that abruptly switch viewpoints to "the miller," Luo, and the Little Seamstress. They interrupt the flow of the story and aren't strictly necessary; I feel like the information here was either conveyed elsewhere, could have been inferred, or could have been worked in within the main narrative without disrupting the flow or giving the narrator more knowledge than he should have rightly possessed. While there was some lovely description and probably some symbolism that went over my head in these chapters (the key chain? the snake? I'm sure these were symbolic but I don't know quite what of) they just didn't fit the flow of the story as a whole, and I was left rather wondering at their purpose as I proceeded on to the end.
Overall, I liked this, more than I thought I would considering that I had misconceptions about what the story was about when I started--I definitely just made up some story in my head, there's no sense as to where I got this alternative plot from--but those chapters just didn't make sense to me.
4 stars out of 5.