A curious debut novel by a Chinese expatriate filmmaker, first published to widespread acclaim in 1998 France, dramatizes the restrictions placed on the minds and imaginations of Chairman Mao’s followers.
In the early 1970s, two teenaged boys—the unnamed narrator and his older friend Luo (both of whose parents have been declared counterrevolutionaries)—are sent for “re-education” to a remote mountain village where, among other indignities, they’re forced to carry brimming buckets of excrement. The former, a soulful boy who plays the violin, is permitted to keep his “toy” when the quick-witted Luo announces that the tune his friend is playing is entitled “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” Nothing else is as explosively funny, in an oddly paced tale that details efforts to outwit the village’s tyrannical “headman” (they become “tellers of films” they’ve seen in a nearby town) and escape from communal mindlessness—which they manage by stealing a cache of translated Western books (including several Balzac novels) from an acquaintance whom they befriend, then deceive. Their prize possessions also attract the eponymous “little seamstress” (daughter of an itinerant tailor), whom the lovestruck Luo impulsively courts. So successful is the course of her “re-education” that she rids herself of Luo’s child by having an abortion, dons Western-style clothing, and leaves the mountain for life in the big city (presumably as a Balzac or Flaubert heroine). The desires of Dai Sijie’s people to expand their intellectual horizons are nicely realized, but several of this brief story’s episodes digress to no discernible purpose, failing to either advance its narrative or deepen our understanding of its (more or less generic) characters.
Literate and moderately engaging, but unlikely to enjoy the same runaway success that greeted it in La Belle France.