Auto-da-fé: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ends with a conflagration of Western masterpieces. Father Goriot, Edmund Dantes, Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Emma Bovary and many, many others are condemned as ‘heretics’ and burned.

Dai Sijie’s enchanting, slim, fable-like novel centres around the ‘re-education’ of two teenage friends during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As doctors and intellectuals, the boys’ parents have been denounced as “stinking scientific authorities” and “reactionaries”, which leads to their sons being banished to a distant mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky. They must be trained in what it means to be true and faithful members of the proletariat. Forced to carry loads of excrement up and down the mountain, the two still manage to undertake their work with enthusiasm. It’s the only chance they will ever be allowed to return home.

The boys make the best of their situation, using humour and exuberance and innate intelligence to get along. The village headman discovers their natural ability for storytelling and sends them to the town to watch films in order to retell them in precise detail for the whole of the village. There they make the acquaintance of the Little Seamstress, the most beautiful girl on the mountain, and through an odd set of circumstances, they discover a secret suitcase full of marvellous works of literature.

Luo, the older and more daring of the boys, falls in love with the wild mountain seamstress and sets about ‘educating’ her. In effect, he becomes a young Chinese Henry Higgins, reading her story after story, filling her head and heart with new ideas.

All the while, the boys are in real danger. Foreign books—in fact, all books—are considered to be ‘reactionary filth’ and therefore forbidden. To be in possession of such things means imprisonment—or worse. One day, when a book falls out of one of the boy’s packs, a gang of bullies stop their tormenting, as flabbergasted, hushed, and alarmed as if they were staring at an explosive device.

Little do the boys suspect that the stories they tell are indeed ‘incendiary’. The Little Seamstress is transformed, but not in the way Luo intended. And the boys must face the reality that stories and those they love have lives all their own.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress  

 Dai Sijie

Vintage Books, 2002

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