Remember reading your favorite book for the very first time? How you felt completely mesmerized by the story and couldn’t stop reading till you were finished. Well, that’s exactly how Luo and the narrator felt in the rising action of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, while ‘illegally’ reading their book – only for them it was even better than that. The two of them had been sent to be re-educated during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where they were forced to work in the coal mines and with the rice crop. During that time, they met Four-Eyes, the son of a prominent poet, who was also being re-educated. His mother had entrusted Four-Eyes with some of her books, so he was hiding French, Russian, and English novels that were forbidden by Chinese law in a leather suitcase. The boys managed to convince Four-Eyes to lend them the book, Ursule Mirouët by Honoré de Balzac, which was their first foreign book and a catalyst for their plot to steal Four Eyes’ suitcase full of books for themselves, and to transform the Little Seamstress, a tailor’s daughter they both loved, from a simple peasant to someone more civilized. To better demonstrate all the challenges the narrator and Luo were experiencing, I made a playlist of songs for all those turning points in the book.
1. I Really Like You by Carly Rae Jepson
“I really really really really really really like you
And I want you, do you want me, do you want me too?”
When the narrator first meets the Little Seamstress, he is instantly attracted to her and it’s basically love at first sight, even though at the same time, his best friend Luo likes her too, and the Little Seamstress likes him back.”I was so utterly captivated that I wanted to marry here there and then, regardless of her being Luo’s girlfriend” (88)”. So, the narrator pushes his feelings down and doesn’t say anything about it, even though he desperately wants her, and secretly despises Luo, “Suddenly I felt a stab of jealousy, a biter wrenching emotion I had never felt before” (58).
2. In Your Pocket by Maroon 5
“So wait you think that I don’t know what this is really all about
It should be really easy
If you have nothing to hide”
Luo and the narrator are at Four-Eyes’ home, when the narrator stumbles upon an elegant, locked suitcase. The two of them begin suspect that Four-Eyes is hiding books, “‘I expect they’re books, They way you keep your suitcase locked up and hidden away is enough to betray your secret: you’ve got a stash of forbidden books'” (Sijie 49). When Four-Eyes adamantly denies the accusations and refuses to show them what’s in the suitcase, a sense of “…heightened vigilance and distrust is shown by Four-Eyes” (50).
3. Bubbly by Colbie Caillat
“The rain is fallin’ on my window pane
But we are hidin’ in a safer place
Under covers stayin’ dry and warm
You give me feelings that I adore”
After a while of plotting and thinking, Luo and the narrator finally manage to get Four-Eyes to lend them a slim, worn novel entitled Ursule Mirouët by Balzac. “Luo started reading the book the very same night Four-Eyes lent it to us, and reached the end at dawn, when he put out the oil lamp and passed the book to me. I stayed in bed until nightfall, without food, completely wrapped up in the French story of love and miracles…I did not rise from my bed until I had turned the last page” (57). This novel entranced Luo and the narrator, and completely transformed their lives. They had been introduced into a whole new world of “…awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all three subjects that had, until then, been hidden from [them]” (57).
“Grabbed all the cash underneath my mattress
Got a real good feelin’ something bad about to happen”
To experience more of the pleasure they had gotten from reading the Balzac book, and to educate the girl they both loved, Luo and the narrator were convinced that they had to get more books from Four-Eyes. Though they continuously kept trying and trying to find tasks to do for Four-Eyes and ways to essentially ‘kiss up’ to him in order to get a book, he carried on rebuffing their efforts and kept the suitcase of books well locked up. Eventually they came to a conclusion, after their tireless attempts had gotten them nowhere,”‘About those books of his – what if we stole them?”. To accomplish this, they kept track of everything that happened in Four-Eyes’ village, when finally, they found the perfect opportunity: “Four-Eyes and his mother the poetess were planning a grand celebration to mark the end of his stint of re-education” (90). During the farewell banquet, Luo and narrator would use a master-key they had fashioned to sneak into Four-Eyes’ house and sneak back out with the suitcase of books. Sounds simple, right? Not so much when it actually happened. After getting in, they realized the case was incredibly heavy to move and took much longer than they planned to get out. This meant that they were still in the house when Four-Eyes and mother came back. “It was exactly as we feared: Four-Eyes and his mother were upon us and would catch us redhanded” (101). In the end, they managed to get out with the books and back home.
But while they now had the books, this was not the end of the narrator’s problems. He was still trapped in a horrible situation, where he was in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, and still growing accustomed to this new world the books had opened his eyes to.
Featured Image: here