By Dai Sijie
Translated from the French by Ina Rilke
New York: Anchor Books, 2001
ISBN # 0-385-72220-6 (paper)
184 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2011

If touching, heart-warming, soft humor and insightfulness were the criteria of judgment, then this must be the novel is among the best blend of those qualities of any I have read. It is truly a beautiful book, which can be read either as the story it tells, or as an allegory of life itself.

Luo, 18 and his 17 year old best friend, the narrator, have been sent to the rural area for reeducation in 1971’s China. They are sent to the region Phoenix of the Sky, but not to the tiny sole “real” town in the area, but to a more remote tiny village in the mountains which is never named. The area is so remote there are only foot paths, not even wide enough for carts. Given that reality, workers in the coal mines, rice paddies and other such commodities, must carry their product to the town market on their backs. Carts just won’t work. The local tailor, a man of substance, does have a chair in which he is carried by local workers from village to village to ply his trade.

The outlook for the boys is not great. Given that both their sets of parents were well-educated wealthy people, the boys are of quite suspicious origin. For children with such parentage, only about 3 in each 1,000 are actually called back to their homes after the mandatory 2 years of Maoist re-education.

Despite their privileged status of being children of well educated and sophisticated parents, the boys are not actually very well educated. The cultural revolution began in 1966 so the boys went to schools without studying science or mathematics and very little in the area of literature or culture. These things, however, they did get in their cultured homes, which, like others of their backgrounds, made them suspect.

The narrator does play the violin with some degree of skill, and both boys are literate. In the whole novel it is only Luo, the narrator’s buddy and partner on the mountain, who has a proper name. Others are given descriptives – the little Chinese seamstress, the village head man and so on.

As luck would have it they do discover that another of the young men sent to this area for reeducation, Four-eyes, has a box of nothing less that western books that have been translated into Chinese. After the boys help him when he was in need, he agrees to give them a sole book for “pay.” It is a book by Balzac, and this experience, their very first with western literature, begins a process that completely dominates and changes their lives.

Dai Sijie’s telling of the story is masterful. It grows by descriptive understatement, and takes us into a world of primitiveness and oppression that is nearly unimaginable. Yet, he does in such a light, sensitive and humorous manner, that we just come to accept this world as the way it is. However, something hangs over the book – perhaps it is that the narrator is telling it from years later – that allows us to accept this harshness as temporary, knowing that at least the narrator will survive.

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It is a beautiful and touching read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett