The town of Yong Jing in northern China is "so small that when the local canteen prepared a dish of beef and onions the smell reached the nose of every single inhabitant." And the 17-year-old narrator of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Knopf; 197 pages) and his friend Luo, 18, city youths from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, are dispatched to a small village so remote it is a long day's journey from Yong Jing. It is 1971, midway during the Cultural Revolution, and they are the unwitting and unwilling assignees to a program of re-education through labor. Their crime: parents labeled as enemies of the people. The nameless protagonist is the son of doctors, while Luo's father is an eminent dentist who threatened national security by revealing a state secret: in a moment of weakness he boasted he had once fit Mao Zedong with new teeth.
Although these best friends soon have to tote hods of excrement up and down twisting Phoenix Mountain trails and mine coal from primitive pits, theirs is not just another grim and baleful tale of forced labor. For these pals are merry pranksters at heart whose spirits never falter. At their first meeting with the village headman, an ex-opium farmer turned communist cadre, the narrator's violin is adjudged a stupid and bourgeois city toy. To prove differently he plays a Mozart sonata. "What's it called?" challenges the headman. Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao is Luo's politically correct and resourceful if grossly inaccurate response.
The novel's catchy title, aptly describing the burden of the plot, derives from a volume of Balzac containing Ursule Mirouët wheedled out of the hidden cache of a fellow re-educatee in a nearby village. The book becomes as cherished as any work of Dickens in Waugh's A Handful of Dust. For when Luo reads and then retells the story to a dazzling but illiterate Chinese seamstress, she falls in idyllic love with both him and Balzac. Youthful passions reign, and the lovers and the narrator find themselves beset with the ultimate woe of literary teenage coupling: pregnancy. But after reading additional Balzac works such as Old Go, as Père Goriot was titled in Chinese, and Eugénie Grandet along with forbidden translations of the Gallic staples Jean-Christophe, Madame Bovary, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Count of Monte Cristo, also stolen from the same Western treasure trove the worldly education of the beautiful seamstress and real re-education of both young men are completed with an ironic, movie-twist happy ending.
Indeed, this is basically a buddy-buddy, up-to-the-movie-moment story with dashes of the traditional coming-of-age novel tossed in. More Tom Sawyer than Huckleberry Finn, with the accent on a soft center rather than on gritty harder edges, the formerly "re-educated" Dai Sijie's first novel a best seller in France is still a diverting bagatelle abounding in gentle humor, warm bonhomie and appealing charm. No small triumph for a tale set in that unhappy era not too long ago when "every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic fine-meshed net over the whole of China."