Thursday, March 31, 2005

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

This book, written by Dai Sijie deserves a long look. Essentially, the storyline is that two boys, best friends to a point where they are more like brothers, are sent to a remote mountain village to be "re-educated" during the period of Mao's "Cultural Revolution". The boys are chosen because their parents, respectively doctors and a dentist, are considered part of the bourgeois educated class, and therefore, are seen as a threat by Mao's government. The narrator of the story, and his best friend, Luo, who are now 17 and 18 years of age, come upon the most coveted female in the area, who is the daughter of the local tailor, and is thus nicknamed, "the Little Seamstress", as she helps her father with his work.

She is obviously intelligent, if not "properly educated" as the boys were beginning to be before their exile, and still desire to be when they are able to picture surviving their re-education. They have little chance of ever truly being chosen to go back to their families (the party line was that re-education was for 2 years or so, but everyone knew that dependant on the parental background, it could be forever). Eventually, through a series of mishaps, they come upon a literal treasure chest to them, a suitcase filled with Western books. There are novels by Balzac, Flaubert, Melville, Gogol, and others. Balzac is the first book that they are able to obtain, and thus they share it with the Seamstress, who colludes in the plan to obtain the rest of the books with them. When they get them, Luo, who has by now fallen in love with the Seamstress, and has engaged in an affair with her, continues to read her Balzac, hence the book's title.

There were so many relevant cultural issues in this book, and it made me think in ways that books like "Reading Lolita in Tehran" (which was a great book in its own right) did not. There are many of these books out right now, which fascinate me, because I have heard enough tales growing up of those in communist China and Russia that dared to read Western literature, and I know of the stories of "River Street", where Iraqis would go to trade such books as well, during Saddam's reign, with the threat of torture hanging over their heads if found out. I have always felt that I would be one of those people driven to that....my mind has an insatiable appetite for new information, and particularly literary works, so I can imagine how people would be driven to take life or death chances simply for a glimpse into another world.

Both boys eventually fall in love with this girl....and while she loves them both, she loves herself yet more. Luo, she loves and takes as her lover, and he shows the extreme need of a male for a female, when, against his overwhelming fear of heights, he scales a treacherous path to get to the Seamstress each day. Being a present day American, it is easy to sometimes forget the lengths that young lovers will and must go to for each other in other cultures, and how it is expected that the male will be the one going to lengths to win the girl. (Once the girl is "won", of course, that is a different story, her role changes completely to the one that must serve the male for the rest of their lives in most of the same cultures where she is revered before.) The narrator comes to love her almost as a sister at first, but when Luo is granted a month's reprieve to be at his mother's deathbed, it comes upon him to protect the Seamstress for his friend. Thus, he spends more and more time caring for her, and her father, and one night he realizes that his thoughts of her have changed in an erotic scene where he has taught her how to stain her fingernails red, and he can't sleep for dreaming of tasting her fingers. She then comes to him for help, as she is pregnant with Luo's child, and he embarks on a journey to assist her with gaining an abortion, as the only other outcomes for both she an Luo are death and/or banishment. He takes on this burden as if it were his own, indeed he feels as it is, so much he loves both she and Luo. She is, while appropriately grateful, a wild thing, and wild things are not meant to be contained....sometimes not even by the bonds of love.

The ironic twist at the end of the book left me stunned. The entire time that I was reading this, I was feeling that this book is leading the reader to showing the terrible parts of communism, and the effects on lives both young and old, and that the reading of Western literature allows for the opening of minds. The ending makes you consider both sides, and the reality that is life, which means that each person as an individual is shaped differently, and what determines their path in life is measured by many things....some of which we don't expect.

It certainly got me thinking in terms of how Westernization has effected other societies for both better and worse. While, one issue batted around often on the blogs is that you can always turn off the television if you don't like what is on, everyone I know in the Middle East is practically addicted to it. I have more American friends that don't watch TV than friends in the Middle East, where, to my mind, one of the worst mediums of communication has proliferated. Don't get me wrong, there is some good on TV, but more bad than good if you look at it collectively, vs. what one can get from reading, arts, music, or other cultural exchanges. It is one reason that I prefer the internet, because, while there are audio and video components, it is closer to real people connecting. There aren't actors pretending to be someone else....though I suppose that is what I love about books as well, the escape as much as the knowledge, but in a book I can mold things, I have the ability to a certain degree to view things in my own way, and maybe that is just as dangerous sometimes. But at least it's got me thinking.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Known World

I finished The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

I came by this book as I have many in the past months of my life, in an airport. I can't stay out of a bookstore, no matter where it is if I have even 5 minutes of extra time, I am pulled by an irresistable force by the allure of the treasures that await me inside.

That said, airports aren't known for their fantastic selection of books, though I'll grant that a few international ones have a sometimes interesting selection that you don't find usually elsewhere. (You can also tell a lot about the political leaning of the demographic in any given area by what's in the front of a bookstore....it's not just the latest books out, but the ones that the demographic will be most interested in....I used to do that for a living, but that's a story for another day.)

Anyway, I was on my way to LA when I picked up this book, had 7 hours in front of me, sounded promising, not because it's a pulitzer prize winner, but because it seemed to have an interesting storyline, and isn't that what we all pick our books for, either the storyline, or the information that they can provide?

Well, while this book had its moments, and it did, the overall writing style was distracting, the characters were underdeveloped, and it was....sadly, a disappointment to me. Here's a novel about black Americans owning other black Americans....some of the first prominent black slave owners in the country. A lot of fantastic possibilities for historical fiction, right? The worst thing for me was that as I read, (and I had to force myself to keep reading), I kept hoping for some tie up at the end that was going to make it all worthwhile. I was hoping for the characters to intersect to make me care more, to make the extremely important lessons of this book (and it had plenty of them) stick with me. And that never happened. The timeline jumped around enough, and the characters were just underdeveloped enough to make it too easy to put down. I was incensed when Augustus was sold, a free man for all those years, just taken and sold. When, however, he died not all that many pages later....I didn't feel much at all. That's an undeveloped character. And it's a shame, because some of the characters had great potential. In fact, the best developed characters in my opinion, Elias and Celeste, were developed much more highly at the end of the book and Jones did a great job developing them quickly. If only he had put that kind of feel into his other characters....and hadn't jumped back and forth in time constantly, he could have had a hell of a gripping book. Instead, it's one that's important cultural, historical, and economic lessons on slavery will...instead of lingering in the back of the mind...simply fade away.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A reader's thoughts on books, culture, and how they fit

This blog is something I've wanted to do for a long time. I've blogged plenty before, on politics, culture, and world affairs. But I haven't blogged for a long time because of my involvement in certain areas where it may cause harm to the work I was trying to accomplish.

My one other love, however, is books. I could not live without words. They provide a window to other worlds, an escape, a reality, whatever you are looking for, and many times, what you are not.

So here is my modest attempt at sharing books as I read them, hope you enjoy the critique....