Tag-Archive for ◊ mind ◊

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, January 30th, 2016

Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1964 to an English father and a French mother. Both her parents taught modern languages and literature at a local grammar school. Harris was educated at Wakefield Girls’ High School, Barnsley Sixth Form College and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where she studied modern and medieval languages.

After training as a teacher at Sheffield University, she taught modern languages at Leeds Grammar School, an independent boy’s school in Yorkshire, for fifteen years and at Sheffield University. She was awarded honorary doctorates in literature from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Sheffield and was also made an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Joanne Harris is an acclaimed writer. She has written several books among which some were dedicated to gastronomical pleasure. She has received numerous awards and her books have been translated into several languages and published in many countries. In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and she is a patron of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation.

Joanne Harris lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire and dedicates her time to writing books as a means of living. In an interview she says that she has always written since she was a child.

Harris’s French relatives live in Brittany. Her grandfather had a beach house on an island off southern Brittany which looked just like the island of Le Devin in Coastliners. Coastliners was published in 2002 in English and in 2005 in French.

The narrator of Coastliners is called Madeleine but everybody calls her by her nickname, Mado. She is a Parisian painter specialised in seascapes due to her attachment to her native island. She is always trying to recapture the images that remain in her mind from the past and to appease her longing to return home to les Salants. Les Salants is a small island off Noirmoutier near Le Devin. It’s an imaginery island close to the coast of France. Mado goes back in order to care for her aging father, GrosJean Prasteau, a former boat-builder and a silent, depressed and withdrawn man who is haunted and psychologically blocked by an old guilt concerning the accidental death of his beloved brother. Mado returns with the will to reconcile with him after so many years of estrangement. She wants to start a new relationship with her father in the hope of gaining his approval and love.

After ten years spent with her now deceased mother in Paris, Mado, now a young woman, discovers upon her return home that nothing has changed on the island since her absence. The two rival clans, the Houssins and the Salannais still hold ancestral hatreds against each other. She takes upon herself to improve the life of the poverty-striken Salanais by saving les Salants from the destructive sea, caused in part by natural causes and in part by the Houssins.

The Houssins live at the other end of the island. The powerfully rich local entrepreneur Houssin, Claude Brismand, owns the ferry that transports tourists from the mainland to Le Devin. He erected the costly breakwater in order to shelter la Houssinière from sea erosion and to control the lucrative tourism through the island’s only beach, thus allowing the tides to flood Les Salants and leave the fatalist as well as superstitious Salanais to fight for their own survival.

Mado sets a secret plan to help the fishing community in her village with the help of the young attractive, enigmatic Irishman, Richard Flynn, by building a rudimentary barrier with sand bags and old tyres to redirect the tides away from Les Salants. Mado has in mind to make Les Salants a touristic, prosperous holiday resort and fight the ruthless manipulator and machiavellian Claude Brismand, who has a hidden, evil plan to dispossess the land and properties of the poor Salanais and own Les Salants himself.

Richard Flynn is an outsider who has been accepted by the Salanais as one of them and who everybody in the village calls, Rouget, because of his red hair. He presents himself to Mado “with an ironic flourish” as a “philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman…”

The story of Coastliners underlines how small villages are forgotten by bigger communities and have to fight for themselves and unite in times of adversity. To achieve their goal, they were missing the help of an energetic tenacious leader, like the persuasive Mado. She comes to their rescue and never loses hope despite hardships to carry her people through tough times. She endeavours to pull the villagers out of their lethargy, passiveness, in-grained superstitious and ancient rituals toward their patron, St. Marine-de-la-mer. One of their beliefs is that if you kiss the feet of St. Marine-de-la-mer and spit three times, something that you have lost will come back to you. Their maxim is:“everything returns”.

The story also portrays the rivalries, jealousy and betrayal between Mado and her older married sister, Adrienne, as well as the great deceit when Mado by chance discovers the secret relationship between Flynn and Brismand who were plotting against her father’s interests on one side and her sister and her husband Marin Brismand, the nephew and heir of the same Claude Brismand, on the other side. In her novel the author emphasizes how the yearning for material possessions prevails over family ties, love and values.

Coastliners is the battle of good versus evil. The story is slow paced but the plot picks up and mysteries and twists are revealed at the end of the novel. Despite the numerous characters and their complicated relationships, the story is uncomplicated. The author describes charmingly and with her flowing prose an accurate and lively portrayal of the islanders who are still living as in the old days, oblivious to the passage of time, modern life and what’s happening in the world. Reading Coastliners is like embarking on a voyage out of time.