American Crime Stories (2008) & Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2000)

American Crime Stories & Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

American Crime Stories (2008)
American Crime Stories (Oxford University Press; 2008)

Hi everyone! During the preparation for my language exam, I have started to read different types of texts such as BBC News (online), short stories and novels. For every one of you who wants to take a language exam, I recommend reading and watching TV-series and movies, too (I watched Vanity fair and some TV-series from the USA without subtitles such as Once upon a time, Arrow and Beauty and the Beast – don’t worry, I will write about them later). Besides practising English and reviewing the new advanced words that I have learned so far, they gave me an amusing and entertaining time, and top of it all, they widened my knowledge about the world and science. I think, in the future I will do these things more often, because after the exam I don’t want to lose my fresh knowledge of English.

Everyone is a Sinner, but every Sinner has a reason

With regard to reading, I have just finished two books: American Crime Stories (retold by John Escott) and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress from one of my favourite Chinese writer, Dai Sijie. The American Crime Stories is an interesting and sometimes shocking collection of seven shorts stories from seven writers with different genre. As an example, there was a story (entitled Heroine) about a young girl who had psychiatric disorder. While she was working as a governess, she tried to kill her own employers. In another story (entitled Ride the lightening), a skilled detective was asked to reinvestigate a case of murder, in which the culprit was sentenced to death. However, the culprit’s girlfriend believed in the innocence of the man who was waiting in the death row. Then an unexpected twist appeared and shattered everything we believed in thus far. This sudden development of narrative occurs in every short story, but there were clichéd and trite ones among the fabulous pieces. My favourite ones were the combination of frightening and film noir scenes, such as Death Wish in which you can experience the steps of the perfect crime. The following story, the Death on Christmas Eve was the best of all of them! I was so startled and amused by the witty end. The writer changed the whole concept of the story with just one sentence, only one sentence! It was brilliant – I just sat quietly, filled with amazement after reading the last lines of the story. All in all, if you want to read exciting crime stories from the USA with a lot of twists, American Crime Stories will surely give you a thrilling and entertaining journey through the madness of murders.

A lost love and eternal suffering with the charm of Western Literature
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Vintage, 2000)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)

Dai Sijie is a French film director and writer with Chinese origins, who was born in Chengdu, in 1954. He lived in the communist area of China under Chairman Mao, and during the well-known and terrifying Cultural Revolution, he was sent to a ‘re-education’ camp to the countryside from 1971 to 1974. In spite of the cruelty of those years, he successfully graduated from a Chinese university where he specialized in art history.  In 1984, he left China and travelled to France, where he still lives to this day. In France, he started to make a name for himself with autobiographical movies like China, My Sorrow (1989) and The Moon Eater (1994), and with brilliant novels, such as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2000) and Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch (2003). I read and loved Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch – which was translated into Hungarian in 2003 (entitled A Di-komplexus’ – I wrote a review about it in Hungarian). It is a humorous yet critical work which highlights the contradictions in the ridiculous Chinese society. Until the meeting with his most famous novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, I couldn’t even imagine that he could write such a dramatic and touching story, as well.

The story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is taking place in the 1970s and it’s a mix of fiction and reminiscent of the writer’s memories from the time when he was kept in a ‘re-education’ camp. The Chinese countryside, the peasants’ life in the fields and the hard physical work that millions of intellectuals had to do as a punishment, is portrayed in the novel in a very realistic way. The heroes of the story are two teenage boys, who are childhood friends. Both of their parents were famous doctors, but during the Cultural Revolution they were branded to be bourgeois and the two boys were separated from their families then sent to the countryside. Their everyday life there is all about awful work on the fields and mines. They are suffering from starvation, chronic diseases and living under constant scrutinizing glances. However, an unexpected discovery changes their lives. They find a secret suitcase filled with master pieces of Western Literature. They are captivated by the stories from Balzac (Old Father Goriot), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) and Brontë (Jane Eyre). The 19th century of European romanticism and realism with love affairs, self-sacrifices and most importantly the freedom of will – ultimately open their minds. The minds which have being brainwashed with communist ideologies.  Beside them, this discovery will affect a beautiful countryside girl, who they are falling in love with. The illiterate girl, nicknamed Little Seamstress, finds love and aspiration. While these young people gain some freedom and happy moments as reading these fascinating stories, they have to face sadness and loss. Because knowledge is always carrying dangerous ideas, especially in a society where you are banned from free thinking.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (film; 2002)For me, there were three touching scenes in the novel. One of them is when an unwanted child has to be killed. The other one is, when one of the boys, who is also the narrator, bursts into tears when a stranger compliments the writers he loves. It was so shocking and heart-breaking. Imagine the situation! You don’t have the right to read freely, to experience the world’s wonders with the help of literature, to think freely and use your fantasy to discover unknown emotions, ideas and poetic skills. (Maybe it’s easier to understand for those who love reading.) And the final one is a break-up scene between former lovers. Repressed emotions, silent suffer of final goodbye, guilt and betrayal. These were so intensive despite of the unsaid words that I was trembling with the characters in agony.

Dai Sijie wrote the story with sophisticated and poetic manner. The language of the novel is so simple but so abstract, because the writer doesn’t put every dramatic moment in words, he is just playing with pictures with a specific description of the characters. This is a brilliant technic for writing which makes you concentrate harder and awakens your imagination. This novel gives you an experience about a regime, where you have to be aware of what you are saying, what you are doing. Where love and friendship doesn’t last long, where deep emotions are destroyed by communist ideas and actions of greed. It’s – a masterpiece-.If you liked the novel, you should watch the film adaption of it, which was directed by Dai Sijie in 2002.

Special thanks to Kvakond for correcting my punctuation errors! ^^
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