[BOOK REVIEW]Cultural Revolution, with love, laughs

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[BOOK REVIEW]Cultural Revolution, with love, laughs

This is one delightful book. Two teen-age sons of "bourgeois" elements, the unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, are sent to the countryside for "re-education." It is 1971, and Maoist China's Cultural Revolution is in full swing.

They get in trouble right away, for the narrator has a violin. To the frowning village headman, the instrument is "a bourgeois toy," and his duty is to burn it.

Just listen to my friend play, begs Luo. Play what? Well, Mozart. Mozart, what? demands the headman. A song called "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao," suggests quick-witted Luo. And the first crisis is averted.

The process of "re-education" brings more crises; indeed, it even brings a sort of re-education, as the boys learn to carry manure -- carefully -- and to get along with the peasants of Phoenix Mountain. Their bourgeois gifts prove useful, as the headman sends them periodically to the district capital to watch movies and then narrate them to the villagers. They discover a stash of forbidden books and decide to re-educate the tailor's beautiful daughter -- the "Little Seamstress" of the title.

The author, Dai Sijie, was himself "re-educated," and later became a filmmaker; he works now in France. His story, written in French and skillfully translated by Ina Rilke, is packed with marvelous set-pieces.

Luo, the son of a dentist, rigs an impromptu drill from the tailor's sewing machine and needle and fixes the headman's toothache. The boys visit a drunken miller to collect bawdy folksongs, which win freedom for another "bourgeois" boy who rewrites them into "authentic" folk propaganda. There is a harrowing visit to the provincial capital to procure an illegal abortion.

And finally, a startling twist when the boys' re-education of the Little Seamstress succeeds all too well.

by Hal Piper

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