Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a... fairy tale? Maybe fable is a better term. But somehow that doesn't seem right either, because when I think about what happens in this pretty little story by Dia Sijie, it seems magical--almost dreamlike--but that must be due to the telling and the subject matter. The story takes place in the rural mountains of China, where the author was sent as a young man to live for 3 or 4 years in a Maoist re-education camp. Dia Sijie was inspired by his time in the re-education camp to spin this yarn about two young men who lived in a mountain village for three years. The surrealism of life in a re-education camp in the 70s is just so foreign to western readers, that it adds to the fancifulness of the story.
According to the bio, Dia emigrated to France not long after his stint in the camp. This story is actually translated by Ina Rilke from the French.
Without knowing how the story was originally told in French, I found no problems with the translation. The story is narrated in the first person from the POV of one of the young men sent to the camp for being the son of reactionaries, with the exception of a few chapters, told in the first person by a couple of the other characters. Dia also speaks directly to the reader occasionally a la Alexandre Dumas.
What I do find odd is both the title and the cover image chosen for the soft cover English translation I read. I can imagine some mid-level conference room discussion full of overwrought, consumer targeting, clarification minded, trying-to-hard conversation that results in this title. Why the word 'Chinese?' Aren't all Chinese seamstresses Chinese? Its like ordering Chinese food in China. But after looking, I found that this imagined conversation took place one country removed. The original title is Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise. The cover photo just looks like an attempt to capitalize on the success and recognition of some other Asian based books that have done well recently. Who is the child these shoes are supposed to belong to? The little seamstress perhaps? spoiler! nope.
Regardless, Dia has penned a story that is touching, sensual, real and full of subtle imagery that may be rooted in his first love: directing movies.
Read this book.