Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

I loved Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which I found on the remaindered table at Munro's Books in Victoria where I also picked up Per Peterson's Out Stealing Horses last winter. It often strikes me as sad how quickly books drop from view as the backlist gets forgotten in favour of the next set of new releases.

Besides giving me a sense of rural China during the Cultural Revolution -- of the geography's remoteness, difficulty of terrain, communal life, deprivation, and lack of education, as well as of the politics and suspicion and compromises -- the novel once more affirms for me the privilege others find in reading. What we either take for granted or, as is true for so many of my students, don't find or make time for, readers in other places and other times have struggled and suffered for. The fascination of stories as a diversion from, but also a way of making sense of, life's vicissitudes, pervades this charming tale. It's a novel of friendship, of intrigue, of young (forbidden) love, of danger and adventure, but it's primarily a novel that says stories -- and books particularly -- are valuable beyond calculation.

I could and should say more about the book, but -- you know what I'm going to say -- time's running out. I'm going to close with some quotations to add to my little collection of "knitlit," but before I do, I invite your comments if you've read the novel -- and if you haven't I highly recommend you add it to your TBR list.

The novel's two young male protagonists hear that the mother of another "city youth" undergoing "re-education" has achieved her son's release and has come to bring him back to the city. They come across this woman sitting in a wooden chair lashed to the shoulders of a young man. What was really surprising was that, in her none too steady seat, she displayed an almost superhuman serenity and was knitting, as though she were sitting on her balcony at home. . . . . . [when her porter sets the chair down in order to have a rest] The woman simply went on knitting, making no move to get down . . . [she answered the protagonists' questions] and resumed her knitting. She was an elegant and, undoubtedly rich woman, who wasn't going to be taken aback by anything. (83-84)

Later, the two young man are planning to steal the (contraband) books of the knitting mother's son:  As a last resort I tried the master-key again, and suddenly, with a dry click, the padlock gave way. I pushed open the double doors, but hardly had I stepped inside when I froze in horror: there, perched on a chair behind a table, was Four-Eye's mother, calmly knitting. She smiled, without speaking. I felt myself blushing and my ears turning red-hot, like a teenager on his first romantic assignation. She didn't seem in the least alarmed. I stammered something about a message for her son, to find out where he was. She went on smiling, but didn't reply. The knitting needles flew in her long bony fingers, and I noticed she had liver spots on the backs of her hands. I was mesmerised by the clicking needles twisting and turning at breakneck speed--in, round, through, off--to knit row upon row of stitches. I retraced my steps, slipped outside, shut the two halves of the door quietly behind me, and replaced the padlock. Although there was not a sound from the house, I turned and fled as if my life depended on it. It was at that point that I woke up with a start." (92)

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