Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress—Dai Sijie

[This 2000 novel, originally published in French, is in three parts. I decided to read one part at a time, and write about it before reading on. ]

15 June 2020
Part 1
We’re in a rain-sodden mountain village during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The seventeen-year-old narrator and his slightly older friend arrive there to be ‘re-educated’, despite never having received the kind of bourgeois schooling that such measures were designed to eradicate. But their parents are of the reviled professional class, the narrator’s being academics and the friend’s father a brilliant dentist who brings shame on himself by admitting to having worked on the teeth not only of Chairman Mao but of a politician now deemed an enemy of the state. Sons of such people have no chance. The narrator has gleaned from somewhere that the chances of such undesirables ever leaving are ‘three in a thousand.’

This novel is a strange mix, and I’m not sure whether I’m easy with it. Dai is writing about what he knows, having some experience of this kind of re-education in the early 1970s. But he’s writing from a European perspective, having lived in France since the age of 30. He became a film-maker there, before writing this first novel…. And it seems no accident that in the novel, what makes the villagers very suspicious indeed of the new boys is the narrator’s European violin—so much so that the head man threatens to burn it for firewood. But Lao, the older boy, is quick-witted, and tells the head man not only that the younger boy can play a tune by Mozart, but that its title is in praise of Chairman Mao. Everyone is enchanted—as they are later by the alarm clock Lao has brought, the like of which the villagers have never seen. And Lao is a great story-teller, a talent that the head man decides to utilise despite, as the narrator puts it, there being no place for the Arabian Nights in Mao’s China.

(I wondered what made Dai choose those stories as the model of great storytelling. To make it easy for his European readers? The Arabian Nights aren’t European, of course, but are definitely the archetype of the exotic as perceived in Europe. Perhaps Dai is deliberately offering his very Chinese experience through the refracted gaze of a Francophile, French-speaking expat. I don’t yet know what the name of Balzac is doing in the title—or why the little seamstress is ‘Chinese’. They’re all Chinese.)

The boys’ experiences are relentlessly harsh. The mountain weather mainly consists of drizzle, the loads they carry on their backs up and down precipitous paths are human ordure for use as fertiliser and, for some months, they are forced to work the mountain’s coal-seam, in a tunnel with no support beyond the first few yards and in daily danger of collapse. After Lao tells the narrator he has dreamt he will die in it, both of them expect each long shift to be their last. Lao becomes ill with the symptoms of malaria, and is given some time to recover—cut short when a request is made by a neighbouring village for his storytelling services.

To rewind a little…. After the head man has heard some of Lao’s stories quite early on, he sends both him and the narrator to the nearest town to watch the film playing there. It’s the usual sentimental propaganda, but on their return—it’s two days’ journey each way—they are able to captivate the whole village with their re-telling of it. The narrator claims no talent for himself, merely filling in details of setting and scene changes, but between them they have been able to tell the whole film. Having seen the programme, the head man has stipulated that their re-telling should take as long as the film’s original running-time. Which it does.

The village that requests their services is one thy have visited before to see ‘Four-Eyes’, someone they knew in their previous life. It is where the mountain’s tailor lives, the man who travels around like a lord with his sewing machine being carried like a sacred object. He is rarely home, but his daughter is—and she is the seamstress of the title. They had met her that first time, and now, with Lao not fully recovered from his fever, they meet again. He really isn’t well, and it’s at the tailor’s house he is allowed to recuperate. There had already been a chemistry between him and the young woman, and it seems not to have gone away. It seems natural that she looks after him that night.

As she nurses him in his fever, he must have reached over to disturb her improvised chignon, and her hair has cascaded down copiously. Fairytale-like? It only becomes more so. Four ‘sorceresses’ arrive, ancient women sent for by the seamstress from different villages, to perform their rituals and incantations over Luo. The young woman gets the narrator to tell a film story, which is why they’ve travelled there after all.  He attempts to re-tell the sentimental film from months back—they have a few in their repertoire now—but he isn’t doing well until Luo joins in with a single telling line from the depth of his fever. His way of saying the words immediately sends everyone into tears, including the sorceresses. It’s as though there’s something magical about what Lao is able to do.

What exactly is Dai trying to tell us about the power of story? Here are his characters, living on a mountain called the Phoenix of the Sky, with its clouds and mist like something from an ancient mythical scene. And wherever this place is, it isn’t only China during the Cultural Revolution—although it is that too. Lao’s desperate search for cigarette-ends to convert into a skinny little new roll-up, the dankness and hardness of the floor where they sleep, and the exhausting doggedness of the work seem all too real–although the depth of the villagers’ ignorance feels as timeless as the mountain. Maybe the point is one of the oldest of all, about how we turn our lives into stories, as the narrator is doing….

But I’ve read less than a quarter so far—Part 1 is short—and things might become clearer.

17 June
Part 2
Clearer? Definitely. In fact, the story arc seems to be clear to the point of being blindingly obvious, which is disappointing. I might be wrong, because Dai might be setting something up in Part 3 that I can’t even guess at. But it seems doubtful. I was going through Part 2 thinking it would be quite good as fiction for young adults—except that its pro-storytelling, pro-reading message, a little crude in itself, becomes almost unbearably glib. It seems that the Holy Grail of world culture is the worship of European literature in general, and French novels of the 19th Century in particular. I’d marked Dai down as a Francophile, but this is ridiculous.

Dai doesn’t expend too much energy on character development or narrative plausibility. Lao is recovered enough after the sorceresses’ efforts to return home with the narrator, and they visit Four-Eyes on the way. He’s always been secretive about a box of stuff he never shows them, and now—or is it the time after?—the narrator discovers a small, incredibly heavy suitcase in the box. He guesses it must contain books—Four-Eyes’ mother is, or had been, a famous poet, and she must have sent them with her son to hide them from the rabid burners of all things bourgeois. Four-Eyes never admits to their existence, but when he is forced to do an impossible carrying job after heavy snow—our own friends’ head man has called off any attempts to work, but Four-Eyes’ hasn’t—they make a deal: they will help him if he lends them a book. Which, with the utmost reluctance, he does.

Guess who it’s by? Unfortunately, the narrator and his friend hate it, and decide to stick with re-telling the films they watch. As if. What really happens is that Luo reads it through the night—it’s one of Balzac’s shortest—and the narrator reads it all the next day. They are mesmerised by it, to the extent that the narrator copies out his favourite section, in his smallest writing, on to the inside of his village-made sheepskin jacket. The book was only a loan, after all—but they deeply regret having to give it back. The jacket comes into its own when Luo borrows it and shows it the little seamstress. She is as mesmerised as they had been by the extract she is able to read, which makes Lao realise that she’s the woman for him. If they hadn’t been already, they are an item now—and for some unfathomable reason, Luo describes to his friend the first time he has sex with her, ‘standing, like horses,’ her virginal blood falling on to leaves he brings back as a keepsake. What? What?

The rest of Part 2 is about Dai persuading us that Four-Eyes is not a good person—he’s self-centred and indifferent to their friendship—that the narrator is besotted by the beauty of the seamstress, and would marry her himself if he could and, once they are able to help Four-Eyes escape back into normal life, it would not only be possible to steal his mother’s books, it would be the right thing to do. That’s quite a lot of plot to get through in a few short chapters, so Dai gets on with it, mainly by way of a set-piece scene or two per chapter. Like, one day they find Dai boiling all his clothes to get rid of an infestation of lice. It turns out that his mother has pulled strings to get him the chance of a job on a Party literary journal, but he will need to prove his mettle by collecting some traditional peasant songs from the mountain. He’s useless at it—all he got from his visit to a half-crazed old miller in the middle of nowhere was a night in a bed infested with those pesky lice. He’s given up—he really has no spirit at all—but the friends decide to help him out if he’ll give them some books in return.

It’s the next set piece, and it’s a broad satire on the absurdities of the Cultural Revolution. The narrator is disguised—thanks to the seamstress’s handiwork—as a passable imitation of a Party official, with Lao alongside as interpreter of what he tries to pass off as high-sounding Mandarin. He thinks it won’t work—Dai always offers a nod in the direction of narrative jeopardy—but it does, like a dream. They get drunk on the old man’s moonshine, so does he, and the scene closes with him singing some bawdy old nonsense. When they return to Four-Eyes with eighteen transcribed songs, instead of appreciating their efforts he’s furious. How can he use this crap? (I’m paraphrasing.) This is where Dai confirms him as second-rate human being, definitely worthy of having his precious book collection stolen. He is about to tear up the songs—until he realises he can tweak them with references to the Party and the Proletariat into something respectable. We read an example of his doggerel—I told you the satire was broad. But the narrator has lost patience by now, lunges for the pages, and ends up in a fight with him. Like Lao, he has a bloody keepsake—not the songs, but a satisfactory amount of blood on his clothes, from Four-Eyes’ nose.

Are we nearly there yet? There are more set-piece scenes after it is confirmed that Four-Eyes will be leaving for his new job. He is definitely not their friend any more, has no intention—boo, hiss—of thanking them or letting them have the books. This means, of course, that whatever they do they occupy the moral high ground. And our two friends are three now, because the seamstress is as determined to steal the books as they are. She has the wherewithal to help them fashion a makeshift key to get into his room on the eve of his departure. His mother, no better than he is—she is pleased to hear that his motive for being Lao’s friend is to get her some treatment from his famous dentist father—has bribed the locals to put on a big feast, complete with the meat from a buffalo the head man pushes to its accidental death for the purpose. The necessary danger-point comes when Four-Eyes, feeling sick after having drunk down what seems like pints of the buffalo’s blood, returns with his mother just after they’ve found the books. Will Four-Eyes empty his bowels in the chamber-pot next to the narrator’s nose? Will our intrepid three be discovered under the beds? Is it all going to end in disaster?

Of course not. Dai must need those books in Part 3 for what threatens to be the triumph of Western civilisation over Chinese idiocy. We’ve had a list of the authors represented in the suitcase alongside Balzac—all the French greats in translation, plus a sprinkling of Russians and Brits. None of the three friends can wait—I can imagine the frisson running down Dai’s spine as he thinks about it—to read all these master-works for the first time. Imagine the thrill! And imagine Lao’s particular delight in contemplating how he will be able to use them in his project of turning his little seamstress into a perfectly rounded person.

Only a Chinese-born author could get away with it. Or perhaps I’m missing something in translation. Perhaps this is a satire not only on the folly of Communism under Mao but on the complacency of readers in Dai’s adopted country, who might not yet realise he’s sending them up…. I’m hoping so, but I have my doubts.

18 June
Part 3—to the end
Yes, he does send them up—but he does it by way of a disappointingly Roald Dahl-like twist. It turns out that the great canon of mainly French literature serves the purpose of turning a short-story idea into a shaggy dog tale. It’s the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but with a sting: the newly-made woman realises that she can find a better life than anything offered by her creator. The last line of the novel is spoken by Luo, telling the narrator the seamstress’s final words to him when he’d chased after her down the mountain: ‘She said she had learned one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.’ Serves him right—except he didn’t realise he was in a very particular kind of novel. How could he have known that she was playing by the rules of a fictional universe in which nobody, ever, is to be trusted—except Luo and our heroic narrator, of course—and women are the worst of all. Old hags, deceiving lovers or…

…merely besotted by nice clothes. Long before the ending in which the seamstress creates an outfit to wow them in the city (she thinks) I was genuinely taken aback by this description of women: ‘Luo and I were amazed to see how agitated they were, how impatient, how physical their desire for new clothes was… it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children.’ I remember as I read this thinking that in 2000 it was hardly cutting-edge thinking on gender issues—and that if Dai had wanted us to remember that this is the view of an eighteen-year-old living in very strange circumstances he never, ever signals it. What I actually thought was, this author has spent too much time in France.

The passage comes not very far into Part 3, and the same patronising attitudes are still in place at the end. Shortly before we reach that point, Luo and the narrator get drunk and burn all the books—because, presumably, they are very, very dangerous. At that point, it’s an inexplicable twist—we don’t know why they are doing what they have always dreaded the authorities would do, and Dai doesn’t exploit the possibilities of the irony. At first, he words it so that the reader assumes the ‘six matches’ mentioned are being struck by Party officials, and when we understand that isn’t the case, we don’t get it. We haven’t had the flashback yet in which Luo comes to his shocked understanding, foreshadowed for us in that earlier scene, about women in general and the seamstress in particular. So instead of being a devastating moment, it’s black comedy. ‘Twist in the tale’ stories always are, as confirmed by Luo’s final words. What we might expect to be the bitter irony of his plight is lost. It’s a joke.

And Dai has sacrificed whatever psychological truth there might have been in his tale of the two boys’ impossible project of moulding the seamstress into a good, right-thinking European woman. What on earth is their motive for destroying, in an orgy of drunken vandalism, what had meant so much to them? It feels like the crudest possible take on Freud: if all this heavyweight intellectual power doesn’t get you the woman, what use is it? Or maybe it’s a kind of glib fatalism about men never understanding what women want. That moment when the narrator watches, fascinated, as the village women obsess over fabrics and clothes, turns out to have been a clue. The obsession with clothes and apperance is a part of the female psyche that will be forever beyond men. Before the seamstress leaves, of course, she has made sure she’s looking perfect.

I’m critiquing Dai’s Tale of the Unexpected as though it’s serious fiction. In Part 3, it seems to me, he gives up on the idea. This section is longer than the others, but it mainly consists of episodes. Like, the old miller witnesses the underwater lovemaking that Luo and the seamstress are able to perform—the drudgery of their working lives is hardly mentioned in Part 3, as though Dai has said all he needs to about it and has moved on—and then, Rashomon-like, we get other versions of the same scene from Luo and the seamstress. There’s some business about how Luo plays a game of throwing his keys from his former life into the pool—they go there often—and she is always able to retrieve them. Until she doesn’t, because she is bitten by a snake. What might this tell us about Luo and the way he will never be able to go back now?

Actually, nothing at all. Because he does go back, to see a relative (I can’t even remember which) who is gravely ill. If Dai is making a comment about the danger of reading symbols—there are also ominous dreams that don’t really amount to anything in reality—he doesn’t signal it. The point, if there ever was a point, is lost.

For me, this is true for all the things that happen in Part 3. And there are a lot of them. Like, during Luo’s month on compassionate leave, the narrator not only promises to make sure the seamstress is protected from the predatory local men, he even suffers insults and violence while doing so. Another irony? So? And what about the way he arranges an abortion for her during Luo’s absence? He only manages it through a series of implausibly lucky circumstances—I’ll spare you them—and what does she do in return? She turns her back on both of them. She’s got her nice clothes, and we’ve already been told that for women, the desire for them is old ‘as old as the desire for children.’ She could not have proved it more categorically—and it confirms my opinion that this author’s attitude to women verges on the misogynistic.

A strange novel, one to place alongside all those other debut novels that contain plenty of ideas but are ultimately flawed. Having found most of the first half quite engaging, I’m really not impressed.