I watched a thoroughly delightful movie yesterday, and even today I am still thinking of Dai Sijie's Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress. The movie is about two teenage boys sent to a remote mountain-top village for a re-education with the peasants during China's Cultural Revolution. The boys were banished from the city of Chengdu for being the children of reactionary parents who have been branded enemies of the people.
During their re-education of hard labor, they discovered a suitcase full of forbidden books, and so they surreptitiously read Balzac, Dumas, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Gogol, etc. One of the boys, enamored by the daughter of the local tailor (the little Chinese seamstress of the title), set out on a mission to instill culture on the girl by reading her Balzac. They fell in love, the girl got pregnant and had an abortion. The movie ends with the little Chinese seamstress leaving her village to seek her fortune in the city, abandoning the boy she has fallen in love with. When the boy ran after her and asked why she was leaving him without even saying goodbye, the girl said she learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price.
The movie was shot on a heartbreakingly beautiful mountain, and many times I thought I'd want to be re-educated there myself ( Oh Chairman Mao, where are you now when I need you? ). But what I really found affecting about the story was the intensity of the literary awakening of the characters. The boys were quite taken, mesmerized even, by Balzac's Ursule Mirouet, astonished by its realistic depiction of love, female beauty and sexual desire. Any reader who watches the movie--or read the novel on which it was based--would surely remember that distant time when he too made the first encounter wiith great literary characters.
I myself cannot cannot help but remember with an air of nostalgia my first encounter with great literary characters. The first one I met was the adulterer Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. I borrowed the book from a classmate for a book review assigned in class and little did I know then that it would change my life's perspective. The book's personal meaning for me is that sometimes the people we condemn as degenerate are, in point of truth only discernable to God, morally superior.
The Scarlet Letter had such deep effect on me. In our small town in Bicol during the time I was in high school, there was this lovely woman who was widely rumored to be a prostitute of some sort. I didn't really know for sure whether she really was a prostitute, and I was also hesitant to believe the rumors because in our uptight town in Bicol ( local townspeople would point out with pride that we are the most religious in the Philippines ), the people have a marked tendency to brand any unmarried girl who had sex as pokpok.
Once when my friends and classmates were on the beach, the woman who was rumored to be a prostitute happened to pass by the beach hut we were then occupying. There was instantaneous hooting and teasing, calling the woman by her name. Some people around us were even making obscene gestures, while others throw meaningful smiles. Some of the men on the beach, not content with teasing the poor woman, even accosted her, blocking her path many times before she was let go.
I was filled then with great sadness in my realization that we were no better than the people who plagued Hester Prynne. What frustrated me was the fact that I was such a coward to stop the whole injustice being done on that hapless woman. For what was I to do ? Tell all those people that what they were doing was wrong ? I am no hero. God knows I even have a problem defending myself. How was I to take the cudgels for other people ? I thought then, What if she really were a prostitute? Did it give us a right to do this to her?
Had I not read The Scarlet Letter, my thoughts would have been less tortured. But instead of stopping, I continued my literary exploration. It was a happenstance that the next two great books I read were about other social outcasts: Philip Carey with his club foot and Silas Marner with his fortune stolen.
The literary awakening of the characters in Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress brought them to a deeper undestanding of the nature of love. Unfortunately, because of my unhappy choice of novels first read, mine led me to searing discontent.