Dai Sijie's first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress delivers a delightfully witty, comical satire of all time about China. I cannot resist thinking that the fact he is now living in France allows him the freedom to write about the Cultural Revolution. Anyway, the simple yet hilarious tale unfolds with two young lads sent into the mountains for re-education, only to end up "re-educating" a pretty village girl, the daughter of the master tailor.
Sparkling with youthful abandon, romantic and poetic imageries, two childhood pals steal from their friend a suitcase full of European literature classics, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and works of Balzac. With the forbidden novels they read to her, the little seamstress, as she is often called, metamorphoses into a creature of modern sophistication - not unlike the French ladies in the novels - and ultimately feels confident enough to head for the city all on her own. Her final words leave the two boys flabbergasted, for she has learnt something from the novels that they have not. Her golden words: that beauty is the greatest treasure a woman processes. Then again, what use are these words to the boys?
The laugh-out-loud moments come firstly in the form of the village headman, who marvels at the narrator's violin playing, the other boy, Luo's gift in "movie-telling" and of course, there is the miniature non-flying phoenix: their cockerel-figured clock. Yet, it is a time when all things intellectual and bourgeois are spat on and condemned. Surely you cannot miss the old miller belting out smutty, old mountain folk songs with the wrinkled skin on his belly ebbing and flowing.
After the humour and social oppression have all but subsided, the reader is left with the simple pleasure in literature: how it never fails to enrich our lives.