A Book About Books

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Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.

A Normal Paranormal

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I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne Du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

Don’t Look Now, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

Not After Midnight is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an  atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, Du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology.

The Breakthrough is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

A Borderline Case is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

The Way of the Cross has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.