Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie (Alfred A. Knopf) $18

Reading Dai Sijie's novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is like eating a wedge of fine cake: classically crafted, utterly precise in its complexity of flavor.

The novel, set during China's infamous Cultural Revolution, concerns two young men from educated families who are sent to a rural village to be "re-educated" by peasants. These city boys begin their village life by transporting buckets of excrement all day, finding relief from their "re-education" in the narrator's violin music, a smuggled vestige of their Westernized former lives. When they discover a hidden stash of European novels--Balzac, Flaubert, Dumas--they steal the books and feast on them, famished for literature.

One of the boys falls in love with the lovely but illiterate tailor's daughter, and woos her by reading her classic tales. Soon the illicit act of reading begins to work its dangerous magic on the imaginations of the characters, and the story winds its way to an unexpectedly ironic conclusion.

This book is Dai Sijie's first. A Chinese filmmaker living in France, he tells his story with love for the beguiling powers of narrative, and an acute eye for the sometimes bitter paradoxes of the Marxist Third World. The experiment of Mao's effort to level the social classes of China makes a sweeping backdrop for the book, onto which Dai Sijie layers a subtle counterpoint of images and themes. Bland and brutal government policy is matched with the rich particularity of the characters, the starkness of village life is buoyed by the vivid and insatiable life of the imagination, rural China encounters the strange extravagance of European art.

The translation from French is rendered in clear, precise prose, and the narrative unfolds inexorably with artisan grace. The novel, small as it is, asks big questions about the nature of education, the power of art versus politics, and the influence of the West in the East--happily, its conclusion is suitably, and inscrutably, complex. SONIA GOMEZ