From those darling red shoes on the cover to the last page,
this is a charmer of a story.
Two teenage boys are trapped in the Cultural Revolution
in Mao’s China and are sent to a rural area to learn to
work and to forget their citified educated backgrounds. They
haven’t really had that much education, but as sons of doctors
and professionals, they are prime targets to be “re-educated”
Conditions are almost inhuman and their work is grueling.
By chance they find a suitcase full of Western books in
Chinese translation and the story takes off from there.
In the suitcase are books by Balzac: Eugenie Grandet, Pere
Goriot, Cousin Pons and Ursule Mirouët. By Dumas: The
Count of Monte Cristo, and Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
That suitcase also includes authors Stendhal, Flaubert,
Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol,
Dostoyevsky. And are you ready? Dickens, Kipling and
Talk about books to a desert island!
They meet the daughter of the local tailor and fall in love with
her sweet ways. She’s as interested in learning from them as
they are to teach her about the books they read. They soon
become excellent story tellers, to her and to the villagers.
The Balzac stories enchant them and they nearly memorize
them and soon the little seamstress knows them and so do her
I think that’s all I’m going to tell you except that this little book
exemplifies the joy of reading–in even the most severe of
environments. It makes us thankful for our own lives
and we admire the spirit of those young people in the story.
This book was published in France in 2000. The author, Sijie,
was himself “re-educated” between 1971 and 1974 in China.
He later moved to France and is now a filmmaker. This was
his first novel and won five prizes. My copy was translated
from the French by Ina Rilke.
Have you read it? Did you like it, too?