- Balzac, Borges, and Mao
One of the most intriguing French-language authors to grab the attention of readers worldwide in recent years, Chinese-born filmmaker and novelist Dai Sijie made a big splash in 2000 with Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise, translated into English in 2001 as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. His second book, Le complexe de Di, whose English version is titled Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch (2005), came out in 2003 and won the coveted Prix Femina. Published by Gallimard in 2007, his third novel, Par une nuit où la lune ne s'est pas levée, is now also available in Adriana Hunter's English translation. Immediately recognizable across Dai's output is, beyond pace, a remarkable coherence, which is as stylistic and thematic as it is political—provocatively political, I should say. What I mean is, first, that his books reenact repeatedly—and Once on a Moonless Night is no exception—a memorable and emblematic episode from the debut novel. In that passage, after reading to his companion, the "Little Seamstress," from Balzac's "scene of private life" Ursule Mirouët, an awe-struck Luo tells his friend, Dai's narrating protagonist, that
This fellow Balzac is a wizard…. He touched the head of this mountain girl [the Little Seamstress] with an invisible finger, and she was transformed, carried away in a dream. It took a while for her to come down to earth. She ended up putting your wretched coat on…. She said having Balzac's words next to her skin made her feel good, and also more intelligent.
If others wear Prada, the Little Seamstress wears the officially banned Balzac, and literally so. She wraps herself in the text of his 1841 novel, Ursule Mirouët, or at least in the fragments Luo's friend managed to scrawl on the inside of a sheepskin coat. "I copied out," Balzac's narrator reveals, "the chapter where Ursule somnambulates," and he goes on to disclose:
I longed to be like her: to be able, while I lay asleep in my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometers away, to watch my parents having supper, to observe their gestures, the dishes on the table, the color of the crockery, to sniff the aroma of their food, to hear their conversation…. Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before.
By way of Balzacian desire, Dai's heroes and heroines rekindle their own. Across an other's images, they reimagine themselves, otherwise and elsewhere. Balzac is surely a "wizard," for his forbidden text—the reading thereof, to be more precise—cancels out the carceral time and place of Maoist "reeducation."
Many of Dai's characters, not to mention the author himself, have been brutally wrested from their friends and families and sent away to be "reeducated"—read: exterminated or, if lucky, just brain-washed in the Chinese gulags, the infamous laogai, during the 1960s and 1970s. Now, apropos of Balzac as much as of Once on a Moonless Night, the problem remains—and this brings me to the second point I want to raise here—that Dai's presumed audience on both sides of the Atlantic has never been entirely comfortable with such reminders, fictional as they may be, which renders his work a political challenge in an interesting kind of way. Sartre's "strategic" (some say, hypocritical) reluctance to talk about Stalinist crimes during one of the Billancourt strikes [End Page 30] is among the classical examples. With Maoism and its eighty million victims (a conservative estimate) things are even worse given the more resilient myth of Mao in general and of the Chinese "Cultural Revolution" in particular. The "Revolution" was indisputably more than "cultural," but what Dai's books suggest time and again is that the myth covered up the most murderous project in cultural monism ever undertaken. This is where Balzac comes in and with him a whole, ironically...