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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, May 23rd, 2015

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She worked as a teacher, art administrator, as a journalist in Hong Kong and a Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent On Sunday newspaper. Presently she works as a full time novelist.

O’Farrell has written six novels thus far. Her first: After You’d Gone, published in 2000, won her the Betty Trask Award in 2001. For her third: The Distance Between Us, published in 2004, she won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. As for her fifth novel: The Hand That First Held Mine, published in 2010, she won the Costa Book Awards. O’Farrell’s latest novel: Instructions For A Heatwave, was published in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh with her novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their two children.

The Hand That First Held Mine is the story of two women, two destinies at two different epochs which are skilfully intertwined by the author. In the fifties, the rebellious, twenty-one-year graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, leaves home in Devon, England to experience a new life in central London, following a chance meeting with Innes Kent, the ebulliently charming thirty-four-year old art dealer, journalist, critic and self-confessed hedonist.

Under Innes Kent’s love and guidance, the young, impetuous Alexandra becomes the newly emancipated, Lexie and experiences for the first time working with Innes and other journalists in the offices of “Elsewhere”, the avant-garde magazine, as well as having an early taste of bohemian life in Soho. The clever, motivated, Lexie will quickly learn to appreciate art and to become a successful art critic and reporter.

Lexie is in love with Innes and decides to live with him in his apartment following his insistence. They are happy together, the only blemish being Innes’s estranged wife, the opportunist, Gloria and her submissive young daughter, Margot. Later in the story, after Kent’s untimely death, mother and daughter in unison take their revenge on Lexie and her son Theo. Margot will marry Felix, the journalist, who is Lexie’s colleague as well as occasional lover and Theo’s father.

Margot’s revenge continues after Lexie’s premature death, when little Theo comes to live with his father, Felix and herself. Margot – who was unable to have children – changes the child’s name from Theo to Ted and pretends to be his real mother. Margot and her mother Gloria keep the family’s secret tightly hidden from him. Felix, being a weak character accepts to go along with their wicked deceit. This will create Ted’s instability and torment as an adult, especially when he himself becomes a father.

A generation later, the thirty-one-year-old Elina Vilkuna, a Finnish painter, is recovering from a traumatic first childbirth by cesarian which nearly killed her and is about to destroy her relationship with her thirty-five-year old boyfriend – and father of her newly born Jonah – the film editor, Ted, who has been behaving oddly ever since.

Following her release from hospital with her newly born son, Jonah, Elina feels bewildered. She appears to have lost all memory of her dreadful delivery and seems to be living in a world of make believe. She makes the effort of trying to recall what happened and can remember in little strokes, like when her red scarf falls, it reminds her of the “jets of blood…in the scrubbed white of the room”.

As Elina is starting to emerge slowly from her amnesia and state of lethargy, Ted’s childhood is returning to him frequently now, in a blurred, handicapping form. He is having an awakening of his long-buried subconscious and is desperately looking for a guiding hand as a beacon to shed some light on all these inexplicably shadowy areas from his infancy which don’t correspond to the stories that “his mother”, Margot, told him.

Being predisposed to hypnotic periods, there are gaps in Ted’s memory. There are many old memories that contradict his other childhood and he is under the impression of having lived two childhoods. There are things he wants to remember but is unable to. He recalls some scenes from the past, a few puzzling flashbacks, like the first outlines on a canvas, he needs to complete the painting, which is difficult with lots of mysteries left unanswered by his parents.

Feeling guilty after his son’s deep depression and collapse, Felix reveals the whole secret story to Elina. He confesses his culpability and remorse and asks her to mediate between him and his son in order for his son to forgive him for concealing the truth from him for all these years.

The two stories run in alternating chapters between Lexie and Elina, without being connected at first, but towards the end the author, with a twist, thanks to her skilful magic wand, makes them converge into one without any exertion but with extreme intensity, compassion and sensitivity.

The Hand That First Held Mine is about the destructive power of the unspoken among members of the same family and the impact on people’s life due to the loss of a family member. The power of the past in re-modelling the present and transcending it, as well as the gratification and richness that parenthood brings to a mother and a father but also how the birth of a first child can change everything in one’s life. It is also about a mother’s deep love and sacrifices – Lexie and Elina are two ambitious career women who try to re-adapt after being jolted to so many responsibilities with their first new-born.

In one of her interviews, Maggie O’Farrell says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. She also says she couldn’t have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself. This exact feeling is described in the novel at the time Lexie knew she was drowning: “She didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she won’t experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

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