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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

November 9, 2001

Front-Page News

The following book review by Stephanie Hull, assistant to the president, secretary of the College, and adjunct assistant professor of French, appeared in the September 30 issue of the Chicago Tribune. It is reprinted here in its entirety.

Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a wonderful novel about cultures that do not match, but must somehow be stitched together. It is a tale of impossible conflicts, told sometimes with bold, vivid descriptions and sometimes with extreme minimalism.

When the narrator and his schoolmate Luo, both members of the bourgeois class by virtue of the accomplishments of their fathers, are sent to a tiny mountain village for re-education, the two “young intellectuals” feel acutely the absurdity and the precariousness of their situation. While their social status should have entitled them to the sort of education the Communist Party now wishes to reverse, the social upheaval has already prevented them from receiving this education.

Still, their only hope of being returned to their families is to show progress toward having unlearned these lessons, both cultural and academic, that they are ignorant of having learned. Their background has made them scornful of the restrictions imposed by Communism but unaware of the liberty and the limitations of their own upbringing. With the help of an amusing lie told by Luo, the narrator manages to keep his violin when his belongings are inspected by the village headmaster. The violin provides solace and in so doing, keeps him from ever fully integrating into this working community, where few have such individual talents or leisure activities. Luo’s comfort comes from his ability to remember stories almost word for word and to retell them with extraordinary expressiveness. This, too, would soon cease to be a refuge for him in a world where the only stories permitted are those that promote the Communist Party; but through a series of events the young men gain access first to the cinema and then to a precious stash of forbidden literature. Once Luo has heard, seen, and read these stories, they become part of him and sustain him, like the narrator’s violin, through the process of re-education.

Yet the distraction also prevents their re-education. As part of their learning process, the young men engage in activities that, while contributing to the needs of this small Communist village, also remind them constantly what is at stake in the re-education. They work in the anthracite mines, forced to burrow deep into dark, airless tunnels and crawl back out, with extreme difficulty, traumatized and, on occasion, sobbing. This repeated rebirth as members of the new regime is painful, disorienting, and absolutely terrifying, but it makes them appreciate being alive, at any cost. They trek up and down the mountain with huge, open buckets on their backs, struggling to maneuver a stinking cargo of human waste along a dangerous path. They must learn to navigate this path steadily and without a single misstep; the consequences of thinking for too long about the danger, or straying from the path, are an obvious deterrent.

The Little Seamstress, daughter of a prominent local tailor, is fascinating to the narrator and particularly to Luo not only because she is beautiful but also because they feel she is “uncivilized.” In their opinion, she is not able to understand things as well as they do. Having received little formal education, she cannot express herself in sophisticated ways. She is, however, an extraordinary artisan, able to create anything with her needle and her machine.

The Little Seamstress is deeply valued by her father for her productivity, but he, in contrast to the young men, believes she is perfectly civilized, and thus dutiful and obedient. Despite his confidence in her education, she is not well-enough indoctrinated to be left to her own devices while he travels around the region with his entourage, his old sense of values and his old but reliable sewing machine. Her father prudently does not bring her on his visits to customers who might have young sons who would court her; he leaves her home, thinking she is anchored to work, tradition, and new family values by her new Chinese sewing machine. While he stays away for days at a time with those families who can afford his services, she drifts away from her anchor.

The two young men do not seem to be envious of or surprised by her comparative freedom, although they no longer enjoy such privileges. When they introduce her to the forbidden stories of Balzac, they are proud to think they have played a small role in her re-education as a modern, worldly woman. They do not anticipate that she will come to understand mobility and society much more quickly and more clearly than they do, nor are they analytical in their thinking about the role she has played in their own re-education.

With great subtlety, the author has offered the reader a realistic, yet optimistic, perspective on a series of historical events that offer almost nothing to encourage a positive outlook. With a small number of characters and a restricted frame of space and time, he demonstrates that, in a time when freedom is in short supply, lessons about liberty from another time or tradition—Balzac’s novels, Mozart played on a violin, Chinese folk songs—can be an inspiration to those who wish to escape. Strengthened by these external resources, each character learns to summon from within a means of surmounting the bleakness and hopelessness of his or her plight.

Only one complaint about Dai Sijie’s engrossing story, told with such skill and clarity: It ends before the reader gets tired of hearing about these characters. If we look to the tradition of Balzac and his contemporaries, we are left with some hope that these young men and the Little Seamstress will reappear in some future novel, perhaps not in the same story, perhaps coming together only by chance, with new conflicts and new resolve. Even if they come back by some other name, as Balzac’s characters sometimes do, we will recognize them by their simplicity and strength, and by their harmonious complexity, formed by detailed layering and exquisite craftsmanship, like a beautifully tailored garment.

From Flack to Novelist The fall 2001–2002 issue of the trendy online journal Exquisite Corpse features the prologue from Nightmare Therapy, a novel by Kevin McCaffrey, MHC’s associate director of communications. McCaffrey labored for five years after hours in the basement of Mary Woolley Hall writing the 560-page manuscript, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Nightmare Therapy presents a future marked by economic collapse, in which young, disaffected urbanites become involved in group therapy sessions to explore their nightmares. The post-New Age inner-explorers not only experience their worst fears, they find that their nightmares are becoming deadly. A contemporary comedy of ideas masquerading as a schlock horror novel, Nightmare Therapy moves rapidly through a drug-twisted world of feminist anticar terrorists, homicidal children, political egomania, unwholesome Francophilia, and occasional—and wholly gratuitous—inundations of bodily fluids and other sickening effluvia. But, love triumphs in the end. Read the piece online at: www.corpse.org/author_info/mccaffrey_kevin.htm.

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