Books: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

I suppose since one of my primary criteria in selecting this audiobook was its (short) length, I can’t complain that it didn’t fulfill my expectations. I had four days of work left before Christmas break, so rather than start a new audiobook that would take the usual three weeks or so of weekday commuting, I wanted something only about 4 CD’s long. I browsed through the library’s list of historical fiction on audiobook, and discovered that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress contained exactly four CD’s.

The novel is mildly interesting, but I really couldn’t get all that interested in the two main characters. Teenage boys, sons of doctors who have been identified as “class enemies” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they are sent to a remote mountain village for “re-education” by living and working among the peasants. They meet the daughter of a tailor in another village, and fall in love with this “little seamstress.”

They also meet another young man sent to another mountain village for re-education, and discover that he has a suitcase full of Western books. In other words, forbidden books. They manage to steal the suitcase (and the other young man can’t very well report to the authorities the theft of something he should not have had to begin with). They read the books secretly and are enthralled by visions of a world that had been unknown to them. Then they tell the stories to the little seamstress.

Part of this is about the power of books. The boys are supposed to be getting “re-educated” by the peasants, but instead their horizons are expanded by reading books by Balzac, Dumas, and others. And they in turn fill the mind of the little seamstress with Western ideals. Yet her education doesn’t have the results they wanted for her, either.

The boys’ escapades also remind me of Tom Sawyer’s adventures. Like Tom, they learn how to get out of work when possible, and out of trouble. They take the opportunity to take a sort of revenge on the man responsible for their re-education. They come up with an elaborate ruse to trick an old miller, they conspire to steal a treasure (the books), and of course they sneak away to visit the little seamstress whenever possible.

Since I never cared much for Tom Sawyer, I suppose it’s not surprising I don’t care all that much for this duo. The historical information is interesting, but other reviews point out that this novel seems to trivialize the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. I had thought the book might interest me in reading Balzac for myself, but it didn’t.

Still, some things turn out right. I finished the last CD with only two miles to go on my way home, on my last day of work before Christmas break.

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