I love this novel by Dai Sijie. Set in China, written in French and read by me in English translation, it is a story outside of place and language. Yet it takes its beauty and emotional impact from the specifics of place and the power of stories in our lives.
It is the cultural revolution in Mao’s China. The parents of two teen-age boys, once respected professionals, are now enemies of the people and so their sons are sent to the countryside for re-education through labor. The village on Phoenix Mountain is beyond the back of beyond. They are not abused there, but their life is hard. They are under surveillance, performing crude manual labor. The seamstress is the daughter of the local tailor, who serves several villages, traveling with his sewing machine. To obtain new clothes requires two days walk down the mountain to the market town to buy cloth, two days walk to return, and finally a date with the itinerant tailor. New clothes are a community event, as everyone gathers around to see the process and the product — what other entertainment do they have!
Much better entertainment is provided by stories. The boys recount the plots of movies they have seen.
I was overcome by stage freight and was reduced to a mechanical recitation of the setting of each scene. But here Luo’s genius for storytelling came into its own. He was sparing with his descriptions, but acted the part of each character in turn, adjusting his tone of voice and gestures accordingly. He took complete control of the narrative, keeping up the suspense, asking the listeners questions, making them respond and correcting their answers. By the time we, or rather he, reached the end of the story, in the allotted time, our audience was ecstatic.
How wonderful are these dramatic plots from Communist Chinese, North Korean or Albanian films! But better yet, and enjoyed exclusively by these boys are the novels they find and steal. Translated from French to Chinese, the authors include Balzac, Dumas and Rolland, with a little Gogol and Melville thrown in. The narrator reads his first western novel, by Balzac.
Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all this life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.
The boys befriend — and are befriended by — the little seamstress. She had youth, beauty and spirit, but minimal education and no experience of other places. Through the boys, she meets Balzac also, and the consequences I leave for you to discover so that you can enjoy the book as much as I did. Short (only 184 pages and I wanted more), this novel does what the best-written novels do in any language. We are in a particular place, which we experience, meeting particular people, who are real, and learning some universal truths of human life.