Friday, December 02, 2005

by Dai Sijie

The Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong changed Chinese history in the 60's and 70's Hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals were forced to leave their homes and families and sent to work farms for "re-education." This short novella is the story of two boys who were sent to a small Chinese village for their "re-education." One the son of a doctor, the other a son of a dentist must haul buckets of excrement up the mountainside and mine coal. The boys endure this nightmarish existence until the villagers discover the boys' talents for storytelling. The villagers give Luo and the unnamed narrator a reprive from their disgusting duties in order to go on monthly treks to town to watch movies and then coming back and relating the details of what they have seen when they return. It is in the town where they meet the little seamstress from the novel's title, and Luo falls instantly in love with her.

The plot gets even more interesting when the two boys find a suitcase of forbidden books hiding in the floor under the bed of a friend. Knowing that the friend would be afraid to report the theft to authorities, the two steal the books for themselves. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo dreams of transforming the little seamstress from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He manages to captivate the young girl, however, things don't work out as he had hoped.

Dai Sijie movingly captures Maoism's attempts to imprison the minds, hearts and even bodies of the people of his country, while at the same time he tells the story with humor and emotion. The sheer delight that books offer a downtrodden spirit is a reminder that though one may be imprisoned physically, the mind can go wherever you want. One's thoughts are always one's own.

This is an EXCELLENT book. I give it a rating of 5 stars.

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