Tag-Archive for ◊ escape ◊

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.

Author:
• Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Daniyal Mueenuddin was born in 1963 from a Pakistani father and an American mother. His father and mother met in the USA in the late fifties. His mother was working as a reporter for The Washington Post and his father, a Pakistani civil servant, was posted to Washington for the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank.

His parents moved to Pakistan soon after their marriage in 1960. Daniyal was brought up in Lahore where he attended the American School, but at the age of thirteen his parents separated and his mother returned to live in Elroy, Wisconsin and took him and his brother Tamur with her. Daniyal was enrolled in a boarding school in Massachusetts and after four years obtained a degree in English literature.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, after graduating from Dartmouth College and at his aged father’s insistence – his father, now in his late seventies, being a land owner from the old Punjabi feudal system – returned to Pakistan in 1987 in order to live on his father’s land in South Punjab to run the family farm efficiently.

In 1993 he returned to the USA, attended Yale Law School for three years, obtained a degree and worked as a corporate lawyer in a law firm in New York from 1998 to 2001. After resigning, he returned to live in Pakistan, dedicating his time to writing and managing the family farm in Khanpur. He still lives there with his Norwegian wife when he is not in Cairo.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Mueenuddin’s first book published in 2009, has been translated into several languages. It won the Story Prize in 2010, an annual book award for short story collections and he reached the finals for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Best First Book Award and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of eight short stories interlaced around a central protagonist, the wealthy landlord K.K. Harouni. It also follows the life of his family, his friends, his entourage and his staff. One of the stories is set in Paris and as for the others, they are mainly set in South Punjab. They originate from the author’s experience as a land owner in this part of Pakistan and many of them were written on the spot. The stories portray colourfully rich characters from the late nineteen seventies and ending just before the new millennium.

The author depicts the privileged life of prosperous Pakistanis, in contrast to their poor peasants, servants, managers and clerks, the lack of job security and government corruption. In each story we invade the intimacy of a master or a subordinate, what the author metaphorically calls: “another room”, in order to discover a new aspect of someone’s life or perhaps even unearth: “another wonder”.

The first story is dedicated to the ambitious Nawabdin, an electrician, handyman and father of thirteen children. He works on the Harouni estate and after begging his employer he obtains his permission to buy a motorcycle which becomes his most priceless acquisition and makes him highly regarded in his entourage. Such a valuable motorcycle enhances his status to such an extent that he will try to save it with his own life from a desperate, destitute thief.

There is also the touching story of Rezak, in A Spoiled Man (the eighth and last story). The indigent peasant, Rezak, has been abandoned and badly treated by his own family. He is a happy-go-lucky hard-working man who, for no fault of his own, is being unfairly tortured and threatened by the corrupt police. This leaves him overwhelmed with sorrow, never to be the same man again and to think that what happened to him was meant for his redemption.

Nawabdin’s story is followed by the story of another servant, Saleema, a young maid working in the Harouni’s household. She is married to a weak and depraved man who takes a few rupees from her everyday to satisfy his addiction to amphetamines, while she sleeps with Hassan the cook in order to obtain favours but ends up falling in love with Rafik, an old married valet from the same household.

In another story, Husna, the poor young secretary, cum companion, cum mistress of the retired civil servant and well-to-do landowner, K.K. Harouni, who lives separated from his estranged wife, is like Saleema, also pinning her hopes on an old man in order to escape poverty and secure herself. The two women’s expectations are unfulfilled and they find themselves once more in the street after their employer dies.

In Provide, Provide, the author, moves one degree higher in rank with K.K. Harouni’s estates manager, the shrewd, Jaglani. He is a devious schemer who manages to sell some of Harouni’s land in Southern Punjab at half price to people around him, earning commissions on each sale and keeping the best pieces of land for himself, convincing Harouni that the price of land has gone down.

In About A Burning Girl, Mian Sarkar, a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court, is another interesting figure in Pakistani society. He has an ambitious, haughty wife and an unpleasant problem with his servant, Khadim, who is accused of having murdered his sister-in-law. Sarkar’s character is humorously illustrated as a well informed detective of trivia: “Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived”.

The author dedicates his longest story, Lily, to the spoiled, idle rich Pakistani society. His very pretty heroin, Lily, leads a debauched life, partying almost every evening, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and getting what she wants. In order to redeem herself, she marries the wealthy landowner, Murad Talwan, lives with him on his farm, but feels terribly bored because she misses her former life of partying, despite inviting friends to stay over.

In Our Lady In Paris, the author takes us to France’s capital city, Paris. Harouni’s nephew, Sohail, is in love with his Yale university friend, Helen. He introduces Helen to his parents while everybody is on holiday in Paris during the Christmas/New Year holidays to the dismay of his mother, who would have preferred a Pakistani wife for him. Surprisingly, in the last story: A Spoiled Man, Sohail Harouni is married to an American woman he met at University in the U.S.A called Sonya and not Helen. The mystery is unexplained in the novel.

There are several themes that occur throughout the novel, like the feudal system, the array of established social classes and their very different ways of leading their lives: the unfulfilled love, the unhappiness, the corruption, the helplessness of women who more often than not have to resort to sex for survival like: Saleema, Zainab or Husna and the destitution of the poor servants once the master dies. A good insight into the different social strata and its complexities in the modern Pakistan.

The bleakness of the stories, which are beautifully written with a great deal of observed detail, are softened by the author’s compassion for his characters, which can be read between the lines, similar to the shafts of light that pierce the dark gloom and are softened by some well-dispersed humour.