Dai Sijie, was born in China in the 50s. He moved to France in the 80s and adopted the country as his own. His debut novel, Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise, written in French, is inspired by his experiences in China as an adolescent during the heights of the “Cultural Revolution”.
Like Sijie, the two heroes – the narrator and his friend Luo- are sons of well known medical professionals in Chengdu. Their parents are suddenly reduced to the status of traitors, being branded as “intellectuals” and the two boys are sent away to live in a remote village at the foothills of the Himalayas in order to be “reeducated”. During the Reeducation era Chairman Mao had millions of Chinese youth live in small villages, far from home, in order to be educated by the peasants on the “true communist way”. These projects could extend for years and the chances for boys like Luo and the narrator- who were from the much maligned bourgeois middle class- of seeing their hometown again were pretty slim.
In this setting, the two boys discover a pretty unexpected treasure. They fall upon another boy in a neighboring town who is hiding a suitcase full of french literature in Chinese translation. Mao had banned most foreign literature during that time and pretty much the only book available to read for the youth was the Red Book or propaganda pamphlets. The events that ensue are narrated in a light tone, full of humor and warmth. The story telling is straight forward and simple, like a folktale in narration.
But beneath this apparent simplicity, Sijie evokes many important themes. The power of imagination helps the boys overcome the most desperate of situations. The small novel becomes an ode to liberty, love and literature. In fact, literature becomes the source and the symbol of liberation. Sijie’s novel is an acidic criticism of the Cultural Revolution and its misplaced rigor. The aspirations of several young men and women are trampled by the system as they are forced to live with people who hardly understand them. The so called “re-educators” themselves are poor and miserable. They fail to comprehend the ideology that has sent these young city folk to their towns. Through a mix of fanaticism and incomprehension they improvise on the rules and try to integrate the youth into their lives to the best of their ability. Only to fail miserably.
Full of cinematic scenes, memorable characters and a light tone filled with humor, Sijie’s Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise, is a short rewarding book that gives the French reader a new narrative in the language.