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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


by Eileen Frost

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is the recipient of five literary prizes and a now a film soon to be released. It's been called a testimony to "the power of art to enlarge our imaginations, no matter what the circumstances."

And Consider This

by Eileen Frost

"The Fig Eater." Jody Shield's intriguing first novel is eerie, bizarre, and elegant, bringing us inside the Vienna of the Habsburgs just before the First World War.


by Kristen Nord

Peter and Wendy reappear in the 2002 production by Maribou Mines. It's a spirited and poignant production with an evocative original score and a troupe of puppeteers dressed in elegant Edwardian clothes, ivory hats and veils.



Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

A suitcase full of books is the treasure at the center of this wonderful, funny, ironic first novel. It takes place near the border of Tibet, in faraway Sichuan, China. During the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China, two high school boys are sent for re-education to a remote village on Phoenix Mountain, "guinea pigs in this grand human experiment." One carries with him his violin, but otherwise they have nothing but their wits and the clothes they are wearing. Housed in squalid quarters, they work to exhaustion each day among the peasants, in the coal mines or carrying buckets of excrement up and down steep and dangerous mountain paths. What could be more dreary?

Fortunately, they have the consolation of their close friendship and that of a local girl, a beautiful Little Seamstress. The boys also turn out to be natural storytellers, with quick wit and lots of imagination. Luo is "able to electrify an audience even when overcome by a violent bout of malaria."(!) When village leaders get a whiff of their stories, they are mesmerized. The boys re-tell movies they've seen and dredge from their memories tales to embellish and pass on to the villagers. Like Homer's Greece, rural China is truly a media-poor setting, where storytelling thrives.

Then, the boys happen on an "elegant suitcase [that] gave off a whiff of civilisation." Hidden in it is "a stash of forbidden books [with] mysterious and exotic names evoking unknown worlds." In return for a large favor to the suitcase's owner, the boys are grudgingly given a Balzac novel. Later they get their hands on the rest of the books and stop going to work just to read.

One of them falls in love with the little Chinese seamstress. He decides to read Balzac aloud to her and "transform the Little Seamstress. She'll never be a simple mountain girl again." Such is the power of fine literature that it subtly transforms them all, with unforeseen consequences.

Published first in France, this novel was translated into English by Ina Rilke. The author, Dai Sijie, a well known Chinese filmmaker who was himself "re-educated," has lived in France since 1984.

Interestingly, the suitcase in this story is full of novels by French authors—Balzac, Rolland, Stendhal, Voltaire (all in Chinese translation). Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress became a runaway best seller in Europe and is the recipient of five literary prizes. It has been made into a film by the author.

Shot on location in China, the film is scheduled for release this year. Washington Post critic Michael Dirda called this novel a testimony to "the power of art to enlarge our imaginations, no matter what the circumstances"

Next, a mystery, The Fig Eater>>


©2002 Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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