by Dai Sijie
Two teens are sent to a rural village for “reeducation” during China's Cultural Revolution. Their parents, educated doctors, have been branded enemies of the state, and it is unknown when the their sons will be allowed to return to their homes. As the boys adjust to life on Phoenix Mountain, they fall in love with the pretty daughter of the local tailor, and discover a secret cache of Western novels. Each night, they secretly dedicate themselves to works like Père Goriot and The Count of Monte Cristowhile by day they pursue the tailor's daughter and outwit the village headman.
This is a quick read – less than two hundred pages – and it has a spare, dream-like quality. Much of the story is purposely kept vague; we never learn the name of the narrator or the little Chinese seamstress. A few references to Western pop culture - at one point, the narrator compares a worker on the cover of a textbook to Sylvester Stallone – pepper the narrative, and the distance from which the narrator views the tale gives it the quality of a fable.
There are some very funny moments in the book. The two boys initially remind me of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as they convince the village headman not to destroy a violin by playing a piece called “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao” or acting out the plots of movies for the townspeople.
The villagers are meant to reeducate the boys, but it is they who bring the culture of the city to the provinces. This is personified in the seamstress. Theoretically, a village girl like herself should be teaching them the virtues of peasant life. Instead, they share the stories of Western novels with her, and the transformation she experiences is far greater than any lessons of the boys' reeducation.
I kept waiting for something really bad to happen, because this is Communist China! Cultural Revolution! Reeducation! It must be evil! (I'm thinking this must be residual America-vs-the-Communists cultural bias?) I don't want to spoil anything, so I don't know how to address the ending except to say that the climax never reached the dramatic heights I expected. It was a little unsatisfying, but at the same time, I liked that the subtle, pensive note with which the narrator stopped his story.
4 out of 5 stars
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