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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Balzac and the
Little Chinese Seamstress


by
Dai Sijie


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress



Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - US
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - UK
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Canada
Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise - Canada
Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise - France
Balzac und die kleine chinesische Schneiderin - Deutschland
  • French title: Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise
  • Translated by Ina Rilke
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has now also been made into a film

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine glimpse of life during the Cultural Revolution

See our review for fuller assessment.





Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/7/2001 Lisa Darnell
The Independent . 20/7/2001 Ruth Pavey
New Statesman . 15/4/2002 Lisa Allardice
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/9/2001 Brooke Allen
The Observer . 24/3/2002 David Mattin
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/10/2001 David Wiegand
Sunday Telegraph . 1/9/2001 Ruth Padel
The Times . 23/6/2001 Francis Gilbert
TLS . 20/7/2001 Justin Hill
Die Welt . 13/10/2001 Alain Claude Sulzer


  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most generally approving. (Note also that many of the reviews were very short.)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Infused with the magic and spark of myth and fable, Sijie reminds us how precious intellectual liberty is." - Lisa Darnell, The Guardian

  • "Dai Sijie is a film-maker, and it shows. The novel moves on swiftly from one scene to the next, never dwelling too long on any episode or its outcome, always giving the reader a sense of being there (.....) The unexpected ending, in which Luo finds himself as flummoxed as any totalitarian by the uncontrollable ways in which novels can change lives, is an ironic tribute to the power of art." - Ruth Pavey, The Independent

  • "Like his young heroes, Sijie is a captivating, amusing storyteller, his writing as seductive and unaffected as the little seamstress herself. Alongside this tender, impossible love story is a sad parable of friendship, lost innocence and the power of literature." - Lisa Allardice, New Statesman

  • "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a worthwhile book, but in many ways an unsatisfactory one. Its problem is that the tale is more interesting than the telling. Dai has elected to present his story as a fable rather than a realistic novel, a perfectly respectable choice except that the descriptions of life in this strangest of times and places are so riveting that the reader longs for more. Dai's decision to streamline his narrative, withholding all but the most significant details, and his coy habit of giving his characters epithets rather than names, work against the very real power of his material." - Brooke Allen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Sijie writes beautifully, and with an acute eye for detail, about the small things that keep them going (.....) There are some moving passages on the transforming potential of great literature. But Sijie is never sentimental or gushing; he writes just as well on physical hardship as he does on the life of the mind." - David Mattin, The Observer

  • "Sijie is Asian-born and now lives in Europe (specifically, France), and his book brilliantly reflects his Chinese upbringing and his more recent understanding of Western culture and literature." - David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is funny, poignant, and lit by the intensity of first-time sex and love. Its narrative makes universal themes of adolescence -- jealousy, loss, irrepressible adventurousness, and all that longing for a wider world -- shine through the utterly appalling specifics of time and place. My 15-year-old daughter adored it." - Ruth Padel, Sunday Telegraph

  • "This novel evokes the narrow-minded world of rural China and Ina Rilke's translation is very successful at conveying its magical atmosphere." - Francis Gilbert, The Times

  • "A simple story, seductively told, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress rushes a little too quickly to a close, but this hardly detracts from the book as a whole. What marks it out is the way it touches and lifts up the beauty of human experience far beyond the mountains of Western China in which the story is set." - Justin Hill, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Dai Sijie hat eine unterhaltende Form gefunden, uns vom Einfluss zu erzählen, den Literatur haben kann." - Alain Claude Sulzer, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s was, of course, anything but. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress describes the lives of the narrator and his close friend Luo during those years, as they are sent to a remote region for re-education by the peasants in 1971, when they are in their late teens. Neither is even a high school graduate yet, but as the sons of doctors they are suspicious -- obviously tainted by their bourgeois intellectual backgrounds -- and so, like millions of others of Chinese of the time, forced to participate in this disastrous social experiment.
       They are sent to a truly remote corner of China: the alarm clock they bring along is the only timepiece in town, and it's a considerable journey even just to a place where movies are occasionally shown. Life is dreary and hard there, but the power of storytelling offers some respite: Luo and the narrator are sent to watch the films shown in the distant town and then re-tell them for the locals.
       The power of storytelling becomes even more convincing when they come upon a stash of books that another acquaintance of theirs, being re-educated nearby, has managed to hoard. Books -- except, of course, the writings of Mao and perhaps Enver Hoxha -- are dangerous objects in this time (and nearly everyone they encounter is illiterate). The reactions of Luo and the narrator -- and then those they relate the stories they have read to -- perhaps explain why: Dai does an excellent job of conveying the rapture of losing oneself in the words and stories found in these books, so very different from the oppressive, dreary, and dangerous everyday lives of everyone here. They are all translated works: Balzac, Dumas, Romain Rolland, Tolstoy, Dickens, and more -- a treasure-trove of classical Western literature.
       Four-Eyes, whose books they are, is unwilling to share his treasure, but after Luo and the narrator's appetite has been whetted by a sampling of Balzac they will do almost anything to get their hands on the suitcase containing these works. They are particularly eager also because not only are they invigorated by the marvels contained in the books, but they see what effect the words can have on others -- notably the little Chinese seamstress who lives fairly nearby.
       The power of the books is great, the recounted stories intoxicating to those who the two share them with. And the books are of great value in this world, the only currency the two have to save the lives of one of the characters at one point. The books change several lives in the novel, showing that even in the darkest times imaginations (and ambitions) can not be entirely fettered.
       Beside the books, Dai also offers a good small picture of China during the Cultural Revolution -- the small (and great) outrages, the petty humiliations, the people who managed to get by better than others within the system (notably Four-Eyes and his mother), the incredible poverty in the Chinese countryside. The book moves too quickly over much of this, offering a few episodes to focus on and skipping over long periods of (admittedly probably very dreary) time. Still, it offers a good glimpse of China during the Cultural Revolution, and of the power of literature (and the deep loathing for a system and people who keep literature out of the hands of readers).
       A fine little read.

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Links:

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Reviews: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - the film: Other books by Dai Sijie under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Film director and author Dai Sijie was born in China in 1954. He has lived in France since 1984.

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