(with the spouse as co-author)
Although Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie has been on my bookshelves for over a decade, I just got around to reading it. In this novel, the unnamed narrator and his friend Luo have been sent to the countryside during China’s Cultural Revolution for “re-education.” The two seventeen-year olds find they have a gift for storytelling when they see a movie in a neighboring village and tell their villagers about it. And then they find a cache of Western novels—literature that is forbidden to the Chinese. Through these books, the boys discover not only new geographic places, but new worlds of experiences, insights, and emotions. The power of the literature spreads beyond the two of them as they tell others, including the beautiful daughter of the district’s tailor, of their new-found stories. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress shows us that literature can expand lives and that literature can be subversive to those who wish to control the lives and minds of others.
While the backdrop to the book is the Cultural Revolution, we learn little about it. If there is a flaw in the book, it is that the re-education seems as if it had been a merely somewhat unpleasant idyll. That is not what I have learned from other books that make clear that that the Cultural Revolution produced senseless, almost unimaginable terrors. And I can’t read or hear about the Cultural Revolution without thinking about the spouse’s lab lieutenant.
The spouse’s lab lieutenant came from Beijing in 1986. I don’t remember how he came to be hired by the spouse, but I do remember first meeting him shortly after he arrived from China. I don’t believe he had ever been abroad before. He spoke English, but his accent then made it hard for me to understand him. (Even today, I sometimes have trouble.) We showed him around New York. He was quiet, but we could see that he was amazed. He was bugeyed in Chinatown by the restaurants and grocery stories. He said that comparable restaurants in Beijing would have been more crowded. People would have stood behind the diners to make sure they got a chair when it became empty; otherwise you would never get a place to eat. The array of choices and the filled shelves in Chinatown grocery stores were startling to him.
The wife of the spouse’s lab lieutenant had preceded him to the United States. An ophthalmologist, she had been selected by the Chinese government to be among the first to emigrate to the U.S. The couple had to leave their infant behind, possibly China’s way of keeping a hold on the couple. She was raised for the first six years of her life by grandparents. On the day of her arrival from China, the little girl, jet-lagged from her long flight, baffled by meeting these strange new people called her “parents,” was whisked off to the spouse’s lab to pay respects to the lab lieutenant’s “boss.” She gave a little bow and said, “Pleased to me you” probably then her only words of English. The next day she entered a suburban American public school.
The spouse’s lab lieutenant was generally quiet, and the spouse reports that it took years before he talked in a personal way. Maybe that was because his English was not precise enough, but it was more likely because his culture had never encouraged or even allowed expressions of personal feeling. The spouse quickly learned that he was a kind, loving, decent, smart, hard-working man. Eventually she learned that the lieutenant had a dry and wry sense of humor. And she also began to learn more about his life during the Cultural Revolution. He had graduated from high school at the heart (a misnomer, if there ever was one) of that period. He, like others of his generation, were taken from their homes, put on trains, transported to the countryside and made to work in the fields, presumably to abate a terrible famine that was gripping China at the time. It was a lonely and humiliating time for the lab lieutenant Ultimately, the government recognized his intelligence and sent him for medical training at Beijing University, but just speaking about it made the lab lieutenant choke up, not something the spouse had seen before, and he changed the topic.
Through the years, the spouse and her lieutenant often sat companionably side-by-side doing an experiment together. In a happy division of labor, she would measure doses of things while he performed the delicate dissections that were required. During one of these experiments, the wife made a novice’s mistake, ruining the day’s experiment. Recognizing her error, she cried, “I should be shot!” “No, Mill,” her lab lieutenant said quietly but firmly. “You should not be shot.” From the way he said it, she realized that his response was not a mere platitude but based on his experiences. She recognized with embarrassment that the horrors he had experienced and witnessed during the Cultural Revolution were no doubt worse than she had ever imagined. The loss of an experiment seemed rather paltry in comparison.
Happy ending, though. That baffled little girl? She landed on her feet. After Harvard undergraduate and Yale Medical School, she lives happily with her husband and baby boy in California.