Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Non Western Lit
Dr. M. Allison - WIU
March 22 2006

Writers must always deal with the process of change in their writing because it is a fundamental human experience. Change is used in writing to develop and maintain coherence and order and is manifest in writing through the stylistic choices that writers make, but it may also be used to reveal larger themes in the text. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie constructs change as a stylistic device and a mechanism for commenting on the process of change: how it affects characters and how it relates to larger themes of storytelling, government, and power. Dai Sijie comments on change both implicitly and explicitly throughout the novel. His implicit exploration of change and growth comes in the form of the narrator’s commentary, while his explicit exploration is present in the tangible changes that are experienced by central characters.

Both Luo and the narrator are aware of many of the changes that they are experiencing throughout the novel, but some changes aren’t as obvious as others. Sijie develops the processes of change that characters experience through the narrator’s commentary, as well as through dialogue and plot development. Sometimes he expresses change as contradictory by limiting the narrator’s control over the narrative—the narrator announces and comments on the process of change, but change is more fully, and often contradictorily, developed and divulged through the actions of characters. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator comments on his own ability to orally convey stories, as well as Luo’s ability to so do, by claiming that “the only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories” and downplaying his own ability to tell stories (20). The narrator also describes storytelling as “a pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it” (20). Although both statements seem overly modest and inconsistent with messages about storytelling that are implicit in the novel, they were appropriate because Sijie included them at the beginning of the novel. The plot, as it develops in the second and third sections of the novel, is not in line with his statements because it becomes obvious that both Luo and the narrator are talented storytellers—they have different styles of telling stories and different strengths, but they also have some similar talents. Luo’s strengths are that he is lively, extroverted, animated, and quick-witted, while the narrator’s strengths are that he is orderly, prolific, prudent, and inspired. The narrator proves to be an excellent storyteller (perhaps even better than Luo), Luo turns out to possess more talent than the narrator originally gives him credit for, and storytelling (as both an oral and written tradition) proves itself to be a powerful and worthy endeavor.

The contradiction between the reality in the narrator’s statements (personal truths and commentaries) and the reality in dialogue between characters and plot development is one strong example of the way that change functions implicitly and explicitly in the novel. They force us, as readers, to question and analyze why Sijie has chosen to convey change in such a way. Through character development and the progression of the plot, Sijie comments on the relationship between storytelling and power, particularly power dynamics in intimate relationships and governmental power. A person may say one thing and do another, and this inconsistency is a realization that is one process of change in the novel. Books were banned during the Cultural Revolution in China, but stories were still powerful. Luo and the narrator change and grow, as they are able put on oral cinema shows and read literature. They are transformed by literature and the characters around them are simultaneously transformed. These transformations signal a transformation in readers’ understandings of the relationship between storytelling and power. At the same time that Mao banned “bourgeois toys,” such as instruments and books, the laws he imposed revealed a story language (4). Governmental powers utilize a sort of story language in the laws that they create and enforce. In this way, Sijie’s construction of change in the form of implicit and explicit contradictions is a comment on the power that is inherent in storytelling, as well as how that power may be manipulated for political agendas.

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