No, I’m not the last person in the world to read this book. I read it for a second time, for my Council of Adult Education bookgroup a.k.a “the ladies who say ooooh”, so named by my daughter for our loud ejaculations and bursts of laughter.
So I already knew that it was the story of two young men, the sons of so-called ‘intellectuals” who were sent to a remote and primitive Chinese village as part of the process of re-education following the Cultural Revolution. After deviously coming into possession of a suitcase of translations of largely 19th century French novels, they decide to share them with the tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress, with whom both boys are in love, as their own form of ‘re-education’.
I’m always a little wary of books written by expatriates: not dismissive by any means, but aware that the act of leaving springs from disillusionment and opportunity, and that the narrative may not be untouched by the need to justify the departure. But this book, although probably somewhat autobiographical given the history of the author, does not dwell on the hardships of their exile. The poverty and the grinding labour they are put to is not where their real life is. Instead it is in their resistance and subversion of the situation in which they are placed.
On re-reading it, I appreciated it anew as a bitter-sweet coming-of-age novel, as all good coming-of-age novels are, and as a variation on the Pygmalion story which, like the the original, does not end as the ‘re-educator’ intends it to end.
I haven’t seen the film, but “the ladies” assure me that it is beautifully done.