For quite a short book this manages to pack in quite a few genres. On the one hand Dai Sijie’s look back at the cultural revolution in China have the feel of an autobiography but it is also a rites of passage tale for more than one of the main trio of characters.
In addition to those styles the content is also varied with a mixture of history as well as a story that charts the power of literature, reminding everyone of the costs of banning books.
Two students, who both have parents in disgrace with the Moa regime, are sent into the countryside for a spell of re-education. The years spread out before them with all hopes pinned on a change to their circumstances that will get them recalled to the City.
Because the author tells you fairly early on you know that their future lay abroad but for the other characters liberation came inside the mind rather than in a physical sense. The key to that growing imagination and freedom in terms of thought comes in the form of a dog eared translation of Balzac.
The world that the Frenchman describes, not just in terms of colour and variety but also emotionally about love and lust, has a tremendous impact on the two students. It also touches the world of those they describe the passages to, including the tailor in the next village and his daughter the seamstress.
Of all the characters she is the most transformed starting to understand that she is beautiful and that a Balzac character in the same position uses that beauty as a weapon. She leaves the two students behind not just in a physical sense but in terms of her reaction to the written word.
Unlike the students, who both have a high opinion of their own worth, it is the seamstress who allows herself to come alive with the magical words of the great banned Western writers. She drinks it in and then changes her life. The students however are stuck worrying about much more mundane concerns about sex, getting away from the mountain and acquiring and then destroying the books.
Ultimately the message is not just about the power of literature to change lives and minds but also the different reactions to it that means that the most surprising reactions can come fro m the most unexpected quarters.
It also shows that no matter how tightly the restrictions the mind can still wander and imagination can still liberate those held in intellectual and well as physical captivity.
Version read – Vintage paperback