Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 2)

SPOILERS
I was discussing my blog entry on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 1) with a Chinese physicist friend, and she pushed me a little on how I would rewrite the ending, which seemed to twist me into such a knot. (This is per the novel, not the film, which I haven’t seen and which I’ve heard tweaks the ending somewhat.) For anyone interested, here is my response. (If this sounds quite critical, note from my first review that I loved the book but felt a little deflated at the end in a way that the conventional interpretation could not explain; hence, this follow-up.)

To clarify, I have no problem with the ending per se. My problem is with the conventional interpretation of the ending – that the little seamstress makes a good, wholesome decision. My reading (let’s call it the Romantic reading) may be no better than the conventional one (let’s call it the political reading), but here are my thoughts about why I feel this way.

First if I wanted the ending to look “good” for her decision, I’d give her a little more ambivalence about leaving her lover and friend. This is, on one level, a coming-of-age novel, and these kids learn much about love and friendship and loyalty along the way. She seems too ready to throw all that in the garbage at her first chance at the city. So I’d like to see a bit more emotion, sadness, mixed feelings about dumping them so quickly. They, after all, also have something at stake per what they are learning about love and friendship and loyalty.

Second, I’d drop the “blue Mao jacket” from her city slicker wardrobe. The cultural revolution has been negatively portrayed throughout the novel, and it’s hard not to see her putting on the Mao jacket as a symbolic gesture of putting on the (inauthentic) identity of the cultural revolution simply because it will help her leverage her interest in the city.

Third, I’d drop the last line, which equates female beauty with $$ value (to be gained in the city by dumping your friends and assuming the correct ideological self-presentation). I would have her learn something more complicated from Balzac, something more bittersweet about love, friendship, and doing what you need to do.

If we leave the ending the way it is, I can’t give up my Romantic interpretation (which sees her final act, as it is presented, as a sign of depleted values). I can SEE the other side that favors her decision as a cold political calculation that makes sense, but I can’t feel it in my heart.

So in order for me to feel the justice of the conventional interpretation, the ending would have to be modified to (a) be consistent with previous attitudes about the cultural revolution, (b) suggest that she really does care about Luo and her friend and at least has mixed feelings about discarding them without notice, and (c) the last line about Balzac would probably have to change into something a bit more emotionally complicated.

Maybe I’m wrong and all those conventional readers are right, but I have to be true to my heart 😊

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Love’s Ragged Claws 99c

My short novella, Love’s Ragged Claws, is featured and discounted for instant Kindle download this week (99c on Amazon US, still cheap on Amazon internatl 🙂 ) Warnings: [1] one character has a filthy mouth, though I think she’s still lovable 🙂 ; [2] it is neither pro- nor anti-Catholic but definitely not the orthodox Catholic story some early readers presumed after reading the description below.
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Shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RSNTR2B/

A stop at the confessional becomes a life story. Fifty years, three sins of the flesh, all of them unique, touching, funny, and remarkably real. From their hippie lives in the 1970s to their old age today, the characters pull out the little epiphanies that would become reference points of meaning for the rest of their lives. Adult language.
Featured on the sites below:

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Thoughts on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

(h/t Zhiyu for picking out this book for me as we browsed the tiny book exchange)

No spoilers until the 2nd half (you’ll get a warning before spoilers)

This book hooked me with the descriptive writing on the first page – clean and simple but precise, expressive, humorous but ominous, with clouds of meaning hanging over the images and narrative movement. Here, on the first page, the setting is already pressing in – the environmental setting of the mountain village and the historical setting of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as two middle-class city boys have been cut off from their families and sent to the country for re-education.

But here too on the first page, the vivid sense of the local and the ethnic is already paired with a sense of something universal and human. As the village elder inspects the strange object belonging to the boys (a violin), the boys are already struggling with a sense of how to fit in, how to be understood in a world of adults who just don’t get it. It’s the perfect setting for a coming-of-age tale, where the local coordinates frame the archetypal struggle of adolescents trying to navigate an adult world. The book’s critical view of the Cultural Revolution, expressed with humor and with poignancy, is never far away, but it is also a universal story of kids growing up, joking around but feeling the full emotional weight of adolescence.

The personal and cultural layers of the book are in fact explicitly linked. Discovering the beautiful little seamstress their own age parallels the discovery of forbidden books (e.g., by Balzac) from the West, books that explore precisely the personal aspects of the human experience – friendship, loyalty, first love, and possible betrayal, innocence thwarted and dreams forbidden – which take on a peculiar urgency for these boys, torn from their families and in constant danger of being denounced. The first-hand view of the Cultural Revolution being played out in the mountain villages of China is one thing, vivid and valuable in its own right, but it is the other thing, the personal thing, the intensely heart-felt connection between two young friends and the little Chinese seamstress in the next village – that’s the thing that really sticks with you after the book is done.

SPOILER SECTION BELOW

At first glance, the last sentence of the book is my least favorite. The little seamstress packs it up and leaves Luo (her lover) and the narrator (a dear friend to both, the one who took care of her in her darkest hour, secretly in love with her himself but true to his friend, Luo) to try her luck in the city. When asked why, she notes that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”

A cursory glance at reviews suggests that many readers approve of her final choice as liberating, and perhaps they have a point. Maybe they are reading it with an eye on how to fit it to today’s political needs whereas I am reading it like a Romantic. In any event, like all great novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens multiple ways of reading. In my reading, for example, the final line is devastating. The idea that the little seamstress, artificially groomed and coiffed into something “modern-looking” and “stylish” with her “blue Mao jacket,” “bobbed hair,” and “white tennis shoes”– that she plans to leverage her “woman’s beauty” to stake her claim in the Mao-stifled city strikes me as rather a degradation of values than a liberation. The “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” somehow seemed more authentic.

But if we run with my reading, if we view the little seamstress’s flashy exit in the last sentence of the novel as demeaning, doesn’t this finale undermine the novel’s whole cultural trajectory? Where the body of the novel had suggested that the dehumanizing effects of the Cultural Revolution could be redeemed by the humanizing effects of Balzac and the other forbidden Western writers the teens discover, doesn’t the degradation in the last line suggest that those “humanizing” effects were not so humanizing? That the Western influences had merely introjected Western vanities into the heart of China, as represented by the little seamstress? And if the last line negates the cultural trajectory, the mirror-image trajectory of personal coming-of-age is also jeopardized. What if the ideals these teens had constructed about friendship and loyalty and love was no more than vanity – whimsical ideals to be tossed at the first chance of life in the city? Indeed, the coming-of-age archetype in literature often extends into a more cynical stage, the passage from innocence to experience, as the Romantic poets would have it. And the same deflated idealism hovers over that last line of Sijie’s novel.

But by the time I read the last line, I had become so emotionally invested in the characters, in their naïve teenage idealism, and in the beautiful China they were symbolically trying to shore up against the forces degrading it, that I was unwilling to let go that easily. What if the Chinese seamstress’s final comment does not negate the redemptive power of Balzac and all the spinoff values that Balzac represents in the novel? If my heart wants to argue this side, my head is not long in coming to its aid. After all, one cannot read this novel and conclude, no matter how one reads the last line, that the Western ideas of Balzac et al. were just a trick, a vanity, that Mao’s view of the Western ideal as a Trojan Horse was correct. No, too much of the book weighs against this reading.

The alternative reading is this. The last sentence, as much as it repulses my emotional registers, saves the book from a thematic malaise into which it might otherwise fall. The Western influence (or in this case the universal humanist influence, as channeled by the Western writers the kids discover) was essential to the coming-of-age transition, personal and cultural. But Balzac (symbol of that humanist influence pushing back against Mao) is not a magic bullet, not something you can simply overlay onto China. It is an instrument, not an end, in the boys’ coming of age; and it is an instrument, not an end, in China’s transition as re-envisioned in the symbolic structure of Sijie’s novel. Western culture is not a Trojan Horse to Chinese culture, but nor is the West to be fetishized. If you fetishize those hallmarks of Western culture as something more than they are, if you use them as a mere overlay, you get not the authentic universal human values they express, but you get Western vanity. You get the decision of the little seamstress. So Luo is right to burn the Western books – not because Mao is right about their worthlessness, but because they have completed their purpose in the coming-of-age transition; not because they would corrupt the spirit of China but because once they are read, it is time to move beyond those local Western expressions to the universal truths about the human spirit that lie behind them. The Western books were a ladder for the kids, but to bring something authentic to China, you need to climb the ladder and then throw it away and focus on more universal truths and beauties. If you get stuck on the ladder, if you get hung up on the West qua West, you get the vanity of the little seamstress.

So yes, Luo was right to burn the books. I understand that the conditions the seamstress and the boys found themselves in called for change. But at what cost in terms of one’s own identity? As I ponder that question, the final image of the little seamstress in her trendy new outfit heading for the city to see what she can get with her commodified beauty leaves me longing for the “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” of the earlier pages.

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Free love, free hippies

HIPPIES FREE this week. Download now.

4.2 stars on 50 Amazon ratings. Selected for Oregon community radio interview.

Follow Jazmine and Ziggy as they stumble through the sights, sounds, and ideals of the 1960s toward a dramatic personal climax.

Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Read it. Share it. Drop a rating on Amazon.

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Oregon Community Radio: Gary talks “Love’s Ragged Claws” and more

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Friends, lovers, vagabond spirits!

Below is last week’s interview for
Love’s Ragged Claws and my other novels on Eartheart Radio (Oregon Community Radio). Derek, Eartheart host and a good brother to all, has interviewed all manner of characters from Wavy Gravy and Squeaky Fromme to Bhagavan Das (Baba Ram Dass’s first guide in India, as chronicled in Be Here Now). You might want to follow Derek’s weekly Eartheart shows on KSKQ Oregon. Or at least show some love in clicks and comments below the YouTube post of the program.

For what it’s worth, I was paired for my segment with one of the principal deities in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Brahma.

Interview at 1:45-19:35 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0UnCCmsJNA

(The audio connection wasn’t perfect, but the chat was full and friendly.)

Click HERE for Eartheart’s YouTube home.

Click the cover below to link to Love’s Ragged Claws (a 55-page novella).

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Shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize  
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RSNTR2B/
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BooksByGaryGautier

Other fine books by Gary Gautier (clickable covers):
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Gary

Future classic – free while you can get it

Looks like Love’s Ragged Claws (Faulkner-Wisdom finalist) has a FREE cycle this week. Download free at this link: http:amzn.to/3cwDBaj.

Just be nice if you take a freebie and post an honest  Amazon review of at least one sentence. These really help authors.

In this short novella, Gabriel enters confession for the first time in 50 years and tells the priest he has only three sins to confess, all sins of the flesh, and the confession opens up the byways of human identity and human relationships as it weaves the tale of the three sins.

“A stop at the confessional becomes a life story . . . three sins of the flesh, all of them unique, touching, funny, and remarkably real” (John Allen Stevenson, Professor of English and author of History of the British Novel: Defoe to Austen)

Here’s a sample page if you want to preview the style.

Thanks!
Gary

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Release your inner hippie

HIPPIES FREE this week. Download now.

4.2 stars on 47 Amazon reviews. Selected for Oregon community radio interview.

Follow Jazmine and Ziggy as they stumble through the sights, sounds, and ideals of the 1960s toward a dramatic personal climax.

Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Read it. Share it. Write reviews.

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Ready for Christmas? Buy now, deliver today

How about a Faulkner Prize finalist novel (Kindle) marked down to 99c?
How about a book signed by the author? ♥

Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the William Faulkner Prize) is 99c (Kindle) this week only. Hippies is $3.76. (Select “Buy for others” to send as a gift. E-delivery is immediate.)

Signed paperbacks (limited number) also available. (Paperback prices below include regular USPS shipping and may not arrive by Christmas.)

Click covers to view online; email drggautier@gmail.com to order signed copies. (Prices below for are for email orders). If you see something you like, order now. Limited number of signed copies in stock.

Goodbye, Maggie
Audience: Adult Readers
Book price: $11 (see shipping cost below)

2019 William Faulkner Prize finalist. In a culture of health food stores, gurus, quacks and seekers, Phil’s stagnant life is rattled when his charismatic brother shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Thus begins a dramatic comedy of misdirection, as our heroes find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the Louisiana bayous into New Orleans.

Hippies  
Audience: Adult Readers
Book price: $12 (see shipping cost below)

The Vietnam war resistance, psychedelic drugs, sexual openness, the freedom of the commune – it seemed that everything about the 1960s could be incredibly liberating or wildly destructive. Filled with the sights, sounds and ideals of the Age of Aquarius, this hippie epic follows Jazmine, Ziggy, Ragman, and a coterie of hippies as they discover an LSD-spinoff that triggers past life regressions and sweeps them toward a dramatic climax.

 

Spaghetti and Peas
Audience: Ages 2-8
Book price: $14 (see shipping cost below)

What would you do if you saw a snake in the lettuce? Rachael had to figure that out fast. And she found a magical adventure in her own back yard, within smelling distance of the spaghetti sauce her dad was cooking on the stove. Enjoy this zany, richly illustrated, hardbound picture book as a read-aloud or early reader.

Mr. Robert’s Bones
Audience: Ages 14-99
Book price: $11 (see shipping cost below)

In a neighborhood full of quirky characters, three kids’ search for hidden silver in an abandoned house pits them against forgotten ghosts and the house’s dark memories of racism and betrayal. The quest for the silver is especially nerve-racking for Annie, the kid who actually sees the ghosts. Her friends want to believe her but can’t, and she herself is torn between running away from it all and following the ghosts into the house’s dark history.

 

Year of the Butterfly  
Audience: Poetry, General
Book cost: $6 (see shipping cost below)

One year, four seasons, an archetypal journey, a poetic landscape rich in the flora and fauna of intimate human connection, joyous and sad. The poems in this 42-page chapbook are mostly short and pithy, formally sculpted, but each is packed with concept and image, and together they build up an unforgettable sense of how much life can be lived in a year and how quickly that year can slip away.

Shipping (USA):
First book                                            $3.50
Second book in same shipment          $2.00
Additional books in same shipment    $1.00

drggautier@gmail.com

From Shrooms to Hippies

I didn’t quite realize it but now Hippies is 99c. Follow Jaz and Ziggy through the risks and pleasures of the 1960s. Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Read it. Share it. Write reviews.

Click covers below for links.

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