Author:
• Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Dai Sijie was born in the Fujian province of China in 1954. Both his parents were professors of medical sciences at West China University. Dai Sijie went to primary school followed by college. At the beginning of the Chinese cultural revolution, orchestrated in May 1966 by the seventy-three- year-old Mao Zedong, Seijie’s parents were labelled as “bourgeois”, therefore enemies of the people and were put in prison.

Being the son of a “bourgeois”, the seventeen-year-old Seijie, was sent to a village in the mountains of Sichuan province for re-education from 1971 to 1974. In 1974 he worked as an employee in a school and in 1976 studied History Of Art at Beijing university while simultaneously studying French. He left China for France in 1984, having won a national competition allowing students to travel abroad. After his time was over, he didn’t return to China and has remained in France ever since, working as a film maker and subsequently becoming a writer.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is Dai Sijie’s first novel and a big instant success. It was written in French, like his two other novels, and was published in France in 2000. It won many prizes and has been translated into several languages. Sijie re-adapted his novel to become a film which he directed and was released in 2002.

The story of Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is influenced by what the author himself lived and experienced in his late teens like his two fictional characters: the narrator and his close friend, Luo, who both come from families of doctors. The two protagonists, like Sijie, had an academic education, went to primary school and to college and therefore had bourgeois upbringings and consequently qualified, according to the new Chinese regime, to be sent to a remote mountain village camp to be re-educated from 1971 to 1976.

Mao Zedong’s policy was to send millions of intellectuals to the countryside for re-education in the form of physical labour meted out to them by peasants. Mao’s intention was to purge the representatives of the capitalist urban bourgeoisie as well as the revisionists who had infiltrated the Party, both regarded as enemies of the people. He even closed schools and universities for several years, accusing them of being places of counter-revolutionary education.

Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman, was the actual architect of the Great Cultural Revolution which started in 1966 and ended in 1976, the year of his demise. Although born a son of a wealthy farmer, Mao Zedong was the founding member of the communist party of China and became the “Great Helmsman Of The Revolution”.

The Great Cultural Revolution period is one of the most sombre and traumatic in Chinese contemporary history. It was enforced after Mao Zedong’s failure with his economic and social campaign named “the great leap forward”, which was an ambitious country-wide modernization policy that lasted from 1959 to 1961 and resulted in terrible famine.

The narrator and his friend, Luo, find their new life and repetitive tasks given to them by the peasants to be very harsh. Thanks to their captivating art of story telling they manage to escape a few days of hard labour in the mines. The two youths are sent by their superior to the next village where films are occasionally shown. Their assignment is that, upon their return, they must narrate the story of the film to the villagers who are illiterate people leading a simple life in this remote mountainous area near Tibet, called: “Phoenix Of The Sky”.

The narrator and his best friend Luo’s story-telling improve greatly and their horizon widens when they discover a hoard of forbidden “reactionary” western classic novels translated into Chinese. These include books by Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Hugo and Flaubert, among others, concealed in a suitcase by an educated young man their own age called Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, sent for re-education in the village next to theirs. After pleading with Four-Eyes, they manage to borrow one of his novels, Balzac’s, Ursule Mirouët. They both spend the whole night reading it and finish it by dawn. The two young men are so overwhelmed by Balzac’s story that they strongly desire to possess Four-Eyes novels and they end up stealing them.

From now on Luo, the narrator and their beautiful, illiterate, young seamstress’s lives will radically change as a result of their literary discovery which overturns their existence and opens up a new, magical world for them. They feel the emergence of a literary vocation. There is no longer a barrier between fiction and reality for them. The little seamstress becomes Luo’s lover-cum-student and he becomes her Pygmalion. He introduces her to the world of literature not realising that the effect will be devastating for him and the narrator, who both loved her so dearly and looked after her like a “little princess”.

After listening to all the stories written by famous classic writers narrated to her by the two young men, Luo tells the narrator that the little seamstress’s new obsession is to resemble city girls, she cuts her hair and make herself a bra, copying a drawing she had found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Luo even notices that she is copying their accent.

Learning from Balzac “that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price”, the little seamstress makes a surprising choice. She decides to leave her rural life and everything else behind for the big city life in order to conquer her destiny, like Balzac’s character, Eugène de Rastignac in “La comèdie humaine”. Her decision leads to the surreal and eerie final scene of the book-burning by the narrator and Luo out of spite and rancour. These books they loved so much have to be sacrificed, reduced to cinders, now that they have the nasty effect of emancipating the little seamstress and making her quit after discovering her self-worth.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is a book about books, an ode to literature and especially a tribute to Balzac, as well as to the art of story telling and how the talented story tellers possess the know-how to captivate their audience. Dai Sijie is a good narrator and at the same time his characters are talented story tellers.

It is a novel about literary novels and their power of enchantment. It is about the emergence of literary vocation and how books can be a good education for life. The story illustrates the mysterious strength of fiction as a liberator of the mind and how reading can change people’s lifestyle and enrich it. A novel with outstanding themes that mixes serious subjects with humorous ones with great skill.

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Category: Book Reviews  | Tags: , , , ,  | One Comment
Author:
• Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England in 1946 from parents both of whom were French teachers. A few weeks after his birth his family moved to the outer suburbs of London. He went to the City of London School from 1957 to 1964 followed by four years at Magdalen College, Oxford where he studied modern languages and graduated with honours in 1968.

He then worked for three years as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement, followed by a career as a journalist, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1977 Barnes worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesman and the New Review and from 1979 to 1986 he was an assistant literary editor and television critic for the New Statesman magazine followed by the Observer newspaper. He was London correspondent for the New Yorker magazine from 1990 to 1995.

Julian Barnes currently lives in London and has written several novels, short stories and essays. In the nineteen eighties he also wrote crime fiction novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Kavanagh being the surname of his late, literary agent’s wife, Patricia Kavanagh. Julian Barnes has received numerous notable awards, prizes and honours for his work which have been translated into several languages. The Sense Of An Ending is Barnes’ fourteenth novel and it won the Man Booker Prize For Fiction in 2011.

Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense Of An Ending, has a weak, passive character. He is a retired Englishman in his sixties who lives alone in a London suburb. He goes from a dull, uneventful, quiet life, to a dull married life, a daughter, followed by an uneventful divorce. He once said: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much and succeeded”. He “neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him… avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival”.

The Sense Of An Ending is divided into two parts. In the first, Tony is reminiscing about his college and university years. The second part starts with the arrival of an unexpected letter from a lawyer carrying a strange, baffling will with a bequest of £500 as well as the diary of his departed bright, close school friend that he always looked up to – Adrian Finn. This was all from the estate of Mrs Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his former manipulative and whimsical college girlfriend, Veronica Ford.

Tony has only once met Mrs Sarah Ford, forty years ago when Veronica invited him to spend the weekend at her family’s house in Kent, which ended up being an unpleasant experience. After her mother’s death,Veronica took Adrian Finn’s diary and refused to give it to Tony. Tony is intrigued by the whole affair which pushes him to put all his effort into an attempt to unfold the mystery of this bizarre bequest and the enigma behind Adrian’s suicide.

The matter requires Tony’s eager, intensive investigation. For the first time he will try to make sense of a life he constantly kept afar and to understand why he “still doesn’t get it and never did” as Veronica keeps repeating to him.

After forty years, hidden memories from the distant nineteen sixties resurface. Tony now has time to reflect upon his high school days, his close cliques of school friends – Alexander, Colin and Adrian – and what has become of them after their graduation and after each one went his separate way. The author warns us in the first page of his novel that: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”, because time has the power to deform memories, falsely, into certainties. People prefer to conveniently modify the past to be able to live comfortably with themselves and in order to accommodate the requirements of the current time.

After Tony’s great perseverance, the mystery he was seeking is unravelled with an unexpected twist and will lead to an overwhelming, heartbreaking truth to justify why the ending make sense. A very subtle master stroke by the author.

Throughout the novel, Julian Barnes is sparing with his information – he presents it with many options, varies the angles without disclosing anything, keeping the suspense and the ambiguity in order to reveal an unexpected denouement which clarifies everything at the end.

The Sense Of An Ending is skilfully written and plotted, some parts are tinged with dry English sense of humour. It is the story of a man rediscovering himself while coming to terms with his past “deformed” memories and making sense of perplexing matters. Although a short novel, it is alluring in a philosophical as well as psychological way and a thought-provoker.

A sombre, disturbing insight on ageing and its weaknesses. The novel is dense with reflections and contains several themes like ageing, the passing of time and its effects, the fickleness of memory, the reshaping of the past, remorse, regrets over missed opportunities and how life can guide a person to a different path from the expected one.

In his young days, Tony and his friends “imagined themselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into their lives”. Tony Webster will never attain the expected life he wished to have in his adulthood – a life of “passion and danger, ecstasy and despair”. Instead he will come to the conclusion that life has many responsibilities, but most of all is full of considerable “unrest…great unrest”. As the French proverb goes: “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait”,“If the young only knew and the old only could”.

 
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