Taiwanonymous

April 01, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress, The Tortilla Curtain, and Cakes and Ales

Three of the book I've read over the last few weeks are Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, The Tortilla Curtain, and Cakes and Ale.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a novel written in French by Chinese author Dai Sijie. As I read the book, I looked for signs that this novel was translated from French rather than Chinese. The first sign is the title. If the book were written in Chinese, there would have been no need to specify that the little seamstress is Chinese. Also, it's no coincidence that the author mentioned in the title, Balzac, is French. The book mentions non-French literature, but of the novels mentioned by name, almost all of the them are French. And of the novels mentioned by plot, I think all of them were French.

Another clue is when the book states that the seamstress puts her hair in a "chignon." It can be argued that there is some difference between a chignon and the more common word "bun", but it is clear that neither the narrator nor the little seamstress would know the difference. Another word that seems slightly out of character is "auto de fe." I don't think any translators from Chinese to English would have dared putting such a grand-sounding phrase in an English translation. It is in a much higher register than the rest of the vocabulary of the novel.



I don't have any problems with the previous two words mentioned, but I did have a problem with the translation of currency. The narrator mentions that a room at a hotel cost "five-pence." Rendering Chinese money as "pence" sounds too English for me. Another strange item is that when the narrator mentions the phonetic pronunciation of "Balzac" in Chinese, he writes it as "Ba-er-zar-ke." If that was transcribed from Mandarin, it would be "Ba-er-za-ke." Perhaps the author is not transcribing Mandarin Chinese, but I still find it doubtful that the third syllable would be pronounced "zar."

The novel as a whole is funny and creative, and it does not waste any words. The ending is surprising, funny, and fitting. The book is set during the Cultural Revolution. I have read a dozen other books that concern the Cultural Revolution, and this book is totally original.



The Tortilla Curtain, by T. C. Boyle, begins with the narrator, a white upper-class liberal writer, accidentally hitting a man with his car. That man is an illegal immigrant from Mexico whose luck goes from bad to worse. This scene brings to mind the car accident that sets in motion the novel Bonfire of the Vanities. But where Bonfire of the Vanities was a brilliant and hilarious satire, The Tortilla Curtain only makes a half-hearted attempt at wit and is lukewarm as a tragedy. To put the book in the best possible light, it was a social novel that may have been controversial when it was written ten years ago. However, reading it now feels like reading an old newspaper.

One of the problems with the story is that the tragedy of the immigrants is too relentless. The author is presumably trying to show how the whole world is up against them, but reading the story, you instead feel that the author has some grudge against the main characters. Or worse, you feel that the novel is shaming you into thought or action. For these reasons, I quit reading less than half way into the book. I skimmed the last few pages of the book and was satisfied that I wasn't missing anything.


The last book is Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham. This is the first book I have read by Maugham. As I started reading, I thought his writing was too caustic for me, but as the story develops, the narrator paints an affectionate portrait of Rosie, and he also turns his critical eye on himself as a boy, which balanced things out. So I ended up really enjoying this book. The structure of the novel is impressive. Half-way through the book I began to wonder if there was in fact a plot, but the story is wrapped up nicely in the end.

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