I had heard about this novel for years, but never grabbed it until recently, when I saw it in audiobook form at the library. And as you may already know, I keep finding myself reading fiction and histories about China's Cultural Revolution, and I find the stories of this period fascinating. Well, Balzac takes place while the Revolution is unfolding, and offers a unique perspective on what life was like for those young people exiled to the countryside for "re-education."
Sijie tells the story of Luo and his friend, the unnamed narrator, who as teenagers are sent to Phoenix Mountain because their parents have been branded "enemies of the state" for their bourgeois lifetyles. Living in a hut in the peasants' village, working in the fields, and carrying animal waste haven't erased their memories of culture and education, and when they discover that a friend in another village has a secret suitcase full of books, they become obsessed with stealing it.
Meanwhile, the boys meet a famous tailor's daughter, only known as "the little seamstress," and when she becomes Luo's girlfriend, he decides to make her more "cultured" by reading the Balzac novel the friend lent him. Over the course of several months, the boys split their time working and telling stories to the villagers based on the films they've seen and the books they've read. And while they ultimately do steal the suitcase full of books, they lose the woman they both love when the seamstress runs off to the city, having become fascinated by the culture and education the boys introduced her to.
One of the great things about this novel is that it dwells on the beauty and transcendance of great novels. The narrator, for instance, describes various Balzac novels in great detail, emphasizing the richness of the written word and its use as a balm to the mind that looks for knowledge wherever it can find it. Balzac emphasizes the Cultural Revolution's disastrous effect on reading and culture in China at the time, but also insists that the human thirst for knowledge and beatuy can never be extinguished.