Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Ba-er-zar-ke." Translated into Chinese, the name of the French author comprised four ideograms. The magic of translation! The ponderousness of the two syllables as well as the belligerent, somewhat old-fashioned ring of the name were quite gone, now that the four characters--very elegant, each composed of just a few strokes--banded together to create an unusual beauty, redolent with an exotic fragrance as sensual as the perfume wreathing a wine stored for centuries in a cellar. (Years later I learnt that the translator was himself a great writer. Having been forbidden to publish his own works for political reasons, he spent the rest of his life translating French novels.)

Did Four-Eyes stop to think about which book he would lend us? Or was it a random choice? Perhaps he picked it simply because, of all the treasures in his precious suitcase, it was the thinnest book, and the most decrepit. Did he have ulterior motives which we could not fathom? Whatever his reasons, his choice was to have a profound effect on our lives.

The slim little volume was entitled Ursule Mirouët.

Luo started reading the book the very same night that 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.

Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.

In spite of my complete ignorance of that distant land called France (I had heard Napoleon mentioned by my father a few times, that was all), Ursule's story rang as true as if it had been about my neighbours. The messy affair over inheritance and money that befell her made the story all the more convincing, thereby enhancing the power of the words. By the end of the day I was feeling quite at home in Nemours, imagining myself posted by the smoking hearth of her parlour in the company of doctors and curates... Even the part about magnetism and somnambulism struck me as credible and riveting.

I did not rise from my bed until I had turned last page. Luo had not yet returned. There had been no doubt in my mind when he set off on the mountain path at first light: he had gone to visit the Little Seamstress so he could tell her this wonderful tale of Balzac's. I stood on the threshold of our house on stilts for some time, munching a piece of corn bread as I contemplated the sombre silhouette of the mountain peak looming ahead. The village where the Little Seamstress lived was too far away for the lights in the house to be visible, but in my mind's eye I could see Luo telling her the story. Suddenly I felt a stab of jealousy, a bitter wrenching emotion I had never felt before.

It was chilly and I shivered in my short sheepskin coat. The villagers ate, slept or went about their private business in the dusk. But in front of our house on stilts everything was quiet. Usually I took advantage of the calm reigning on the mountain at this hour to practice my violin, but now it seemed a depressing thing to do. I stepped inside and picked up my instrument, but when I played it the sound was shrill and disagreeable, as if I had forgotten how to play. Then I was seized with an idea: I would copy my favourite passages from Ursule Mirouët, word for word.

It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents.

I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat. The short coat, a gift from the villagers when I arrived, was made of skins with wool of varying lengths and textures on the outside and bare hide on the inside. It was hard to find suitable passages in the book, as the limited space afforded by my coat was further reduced by areas where the leather was too cracked to be of use. I copied out the chapter where Ursule somnambulates. I longed to be like her: to be able, while I lay asleep on my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometres away, to watch my parents having supper, to observe their gestures, the dishes on the table, the colour of the crockery, to sniff the aroma of their food, to hear their conversation... Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before...

Writing on the skin of an old mountain sheep was not easy: the surface was rough and creased and, in order to squeeze as much text as possible into the available space, I had to use a minute script, which required all the concentration I could muster. By the time I had covered the entire inside of the jacket, including the sleeves, my fingers were aching so badly it felt as if the bones were broken. At last I dozed off.

The sound of Luo's footsteps woke me; it was three a.m. I couldn't have been asleep for long, as the oil lamp was still alight. I saw his shadowy figure slip into the room.

"Are you asleep?"

"Not really."

"I've got something to show you."

He topped up the lamp with oil, and when the wick was burning brightly he took the lamp in his left hand, came over to my bed and sat down on the edge. His eyes were blazing and his hair was rumpled. From the pocket of his jacket he drew a square of neatly folded white cloth.

"I see. The Little Seamstress has given you a handkerchief."

He didn't reply. As he slowly unfolded the cloth, I saw that it was torn from a shirt that had undoubtedly belonged to the Little Seamstress--it had a patch sewn on by hand. Inside were some dried leaves. They all had the same pretty shape, like butterfly wings, in shades ranging from deep orange to own streaked with pale gold, but all of them were stained black with blood.

"They're the leaves of a ginkgo tree," Luo said breathlessly. "A magnificent, towering tree that grows in a secret valley to the east of the Little Seamstress's village. We made love there, against the trunk. Standing. She was a virgin, and her blood dripped onto the leaves scattered underneath."

Words failed me. I strained to imagine the scene: tree, the nobility of its trunk, the grandeur of its branches, the carpet of butterfly leaves, and then I asked him: "Standing?"

"Yes, like horses. Perhaps that's why she laughed afterwards, a laugh so piercing, so wild, and echoing so far and wide that even the birds took wing in fright."

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