This little novella by Dai Sijie was lent to me by my grandson, who is doing Year 10; it is on his reading list for English. ‘It’ll only take you a couple of hours to read’, he said; ‘I’d like to know what you think of the ending.’
It took me more than a couple of hours, but I could have read it at a sitting, if I’d indulged in the luxury of a day of sitting in the sun and reading. Sijie lived this story long before he wrote it. Because he came from an educated middle class family in China, he was sent in his teenage years to be re-educated in a rural village, from 1971-74. Eventually he was able to finish his education, and studied Art History; he left China for France on a scholarship in 1980. In France, he was able to indulge his passion for movies, and made several films, and writes novels in French.
In the novella, the narrator Ma and his friend Luo, sentenced to re-education, survive the drudgery and poverty of life in a peasant village through their friendship, courage and sense of fun. Ma has a violin, which, on their arrival at the village, the headman orders to be burned as a bourgeois toy; but Luo persuades Ma to play a Mozart sonata, and tells the listening peasants that its name is ‘Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao’. The headman is charmed by Mozart’s ‘limpid music’, and his suspicions soothed by the false title. This is the first of many escapades, but the greatest is their theft of a suitcase full of 19th century European novels from another youth who is being re-educated there. The treasure trove includes novels by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, Balzac, Dumas. The boys devour the books, which open up for them an undreamed-of world of love, romance, sex, adventure, heroism, individualism. They make it their mission to civilise the beautiful daughter of the local taylor, the seamstress of the title. She is gifted with great natural beauty and grace, but is illiterate. Both boys fall in love with her, but it is Luo, always the bolder and more adventurous of the two, who wins her affection.
I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, which ends with an unexpected ironic twist; my grandson commented he expected something more climactic. But I will share with you a lovely scene, where Ma and Luo are attempting to cross a narrow ridge over a ravine created by a giant landslide on the mountain that separates them from the seamstress’s dwelling. A gale is blowing, and Ma, who is less scared of heights than Luo, starts to cross, but is afflicted with vertigo. Transfixed in the middle of the ridge, he remembers his hero from a novel he has been reading: ‘He was unlikely to object to my beating a retreat in the face of death, I thought. After all, how could I die now, without having known love or sex, without having taken free individual action against the whole world, as he had? … I was filled with the desire to live. I turned full circle, still on my knees, and crawled back to the start.’
This book is about the desire to live, about coming of age in hard times, about what it is like to live in a culture where literature and the arts are banned unless they are propaganda, and how literature changes lives that have been deprived of its gifts.
I love this book for many reasons. I love it for its depiction of youth, in all its wily innocence and hope and resistance to repression; for the simple, luminous prose and the light touch with which cruelty and ignorance are portrayed; and most of all, I think, I love it because it reminds me of my own childhood. I was much luckier than Ma and Luo. I lived in an outback rural area, with few conveniences and no playmates my own age, and didn’t go to school until I was 13. We had few books in the house, a ‘wireless’ that connected us with the outside world, no car a lot of the time, no phone, no electricity. But I had a mother who cared passionately about education, who was very well read and well educated, and who made sure we were all educated to the best of our ability. We did Correspondence lessons in primary school, and then she sent each of us away to boarding school. That was a shock to me, and I think I would have done better going to an ordinary high school in the nearest town and staying at the hostel. But she thought it was for the best. We were brought up to treasure the gifts of books and the world of learning all the more because they did not come easily to us.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? Do you agree with my grandson that the ending was an anti-climax? There is a film of the story, but I haven’t seen it yet. Have you? And by the way, if you’ve read Balzac of some of the other European novelists of that era, what effect did they have on you?