Blasts from the Past: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (transl. by Ina Rilke) (2000)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I’m ashamed to say that I read far less fiction in translation back in 2000 when I first came across Dai Sijie’s captivating novella. I read more these days thanks to the many bloggers who’ve introduced me to literature from around the world and the likes of Pushkin, Maclehose and Peirene presses who publish a wide range of international fiction. Sijie’s book did what fiction in translation does so well: took me to a world that I could never have visited myself.

In 1971, two young men are sent to a remote Chinese village as part of Mao Zedong’s ‘re-education’ programme. Luo and his friend, the book’s unnamed narrator, find themselves assigned the worst jobs in the village, with little hope of returning to the city where they grew up. Luo’s storytelling skills prove the boys’ salvation holding the villagers in thrall but the discovery of their friend Four-Eyes’s collection of forbidden books kindles a fascination and delight in Western literature which will prove to be dangerous, seductive and liberating in equal measure. When both boys fall in love with the local seamstress, it is Luo’s reading of Balzac’s novels that wins her heart but the narrator who saves her. Written with wit and humanity, Sijie’s lyrical novella tells of a dark time in Chinese history and the transforming power of literature.

Sijie’s book is made all the more powerful by the knowledge of his own background. The son of doctors condemned as ‘enemies of the people’, he found himself in a similar situation to Luo and his companion. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was published in France, his adopted country, rather than in his native China whose government was highly critical of it.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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17 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (transl. by Ina Rilke) (2000)”

  1. Oddly, I remember this being on a recommended-reading list for high school summer reading, so I have actually read it. In retrospect, the title strikes me as weird and a bit othering (would a Chinese narrator describe his love interest as “the little Chinese” anything?) I wonder if the French version had a different title?

    1. It’s a great reading list book! That’s an interesting point. Ever helpful Wikipedia has the French title which is the same. Perhaps Sijie, or more probably his publisher, thought it would appeal to white readers but it does seem patronising to say the least.

      1. Interesting. I’m sure that’s right, about appealing to white readers, but it definitely gives the impression of coming from someone further removed from the story than its first-person narrator.

  2. We read this for my book club (Zoom meeting during the pandemic) on your recommendation — via your Bloomsbury book. I think it may be the only work in translation we’ve read so far, which is shocking, but we haven’t consciously made translated work or BIPOC authors a priority.

  3. It stood out in my reading landscape back then, too, and I’ve wondered, since, whether it was simply that there was less lit in translation generally, or whether I was largely oblivious and it comprised a similar %age in the bookselling catalogues, or whether we all needed the ‘net to facilitate global conversations about literature so we could express broader reading interests in such a way that it became more profitable for publishers (at least somewhat). Maybe a bit of all those factors? Certainly I can attest to a degree of oblivion. heheh What do you think?

    1. As I remember as a bookseller in the UK, fewer books were available in translation. I think the Scandi crime boom helped along with small presses that specialise in translated works. Interesting that you felt there were fewer around in Canada. Any ideas about the US?

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