Excerpt from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 208 pages
    Oct 2002, 208 pages

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The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin. Among the possessions brought to this mountain village by the two "city youths"--which was how they saw Luo and me--it was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.

One of the peasants came forward with an oil lamp to facilitate identification of the strange object. The headman held the violin upright and peered into the black interior of the body, like an officious customs officer searching for drugs. I noticed three blood spots in his left eye, one large and two small, all the same shade of bright red.

Raising the violin to eye level, he shook it, as though convinced something would drop out of the sound holes. His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.

Just about everyone in the village had come to the house on stilts way up on the mountain to witness the arrival of the city youths. Men, women and children swarmed inside the cramped room, clung to the windows, jostled each other by the door. When nothing fell out of my violin, the headman held his nose over the sound holes and sniffed long and hard. Several bristly hairs protruding from his left nostril vibrated gently.

Still no clues.

He ran his calloused fingertips over one string, then another . . . The strange resonance froze the crowd, as if the sound had won some sort of respect.

"It's a toy," said the headman solemnly.

This verdict left us speechless. Luo and I exchanged furtive, anxious glances. Things were not looking good.

One peasant took the "toy" from the headman's hands, drummed with his fists on its back, then passed it to the next man. For a while my violin circulated through the crowd and we--two frail, skinny, exhausted and risible city youths--were ignored. We had been tramping across the mountains all day, and our clothes, faces and hair were streaked with mud. We looked like pathetic little reactionary soldiers from a propaganda film after their capture by a horde of Communist farm workers.

"A stupid toy," a woman commented hoarsely.

"No," the village headman corrected her, "a bourgeois toy."

I felt chilled to the bone despite the fire blazing in the centre of the room.

"A toy from the city," the headman continued, "go on, burn it!"

His command galvanised the crowd. Everyone started talking at once, shouting and reaching out to grab the toy for the privilege of throwing it on the coals.

"Comrade, it's a musical instrument," Luo said as casually as he could, "and my friend here's a fine musician. Truly."

The headman called for the violin and looked it over once more. Then he held it out to me.

"Fogive me, comrade," I said, embarrassed, "but I'm not that good."

I saw Luo giving me a surreptitious wink. Puzzled, I took my violin and set about tuning it.

"What you are about to hear, comrade, is a Mozart sonata," Luo announced, as coolly as before.

I was dumbfounded. Had he gone mad? All music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago. In my sodden shoes my feet turned to ice. I shivered as the cold tightened its grip on me.

"What's a sonata?" the headman asked warily.

"I don't know," I faltered. "It's Western."

"Is it a song?"

"More or less," I replied evasively.

At that instant the glint of the vigilant Communist reappeared in the headman's eyes, and his voice turned hostile.

"What's the name of this song of yours?"

"Well, it's like a song, but actually it's a sonata."

Excerpted from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie Copyright 2001 by Dai Sijie. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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