Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies

thienJune 1989. After months of student-led demonstrations in Beijing the Government sends in the troops. Tanks roll down the streets of the capital. Several hundred demonstrators die. The protests in Tiananmen Square are watched in shock and horror around the world.

This conflict between Government and people, one of the most sensitive and widely censured topics in modern-day China,  provides a dramatic and vivid set piece towards the end of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say we Have Nothing. It’s a fitting finale for an epic novel that reaches back to the era of Mao with his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and forwards to the present day. At its heart lies a tale of three highly talented musicians from the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music whose passions and careers are shaped by the political upheaval within their country. The music they listen to, the music they write and perform is denied to them by the state yet they cannot ignore its power.

Do Not Say we Have Nothing opens in Vancouver in 1991 at the home of Li-ling and her mother. Li-ling’s father, Jiang Kai, whom she discovers was an eminent pianist, killed himself in Hong Kong in two years earlier.  In that same year Ai Ming, a young teenage relative, arrives at their door. She’s an illegal immigrant bruised by the Tiananmen debacle and fearful of the consequences of her involvement.  Amongst her meagre set of belongings she has a set of notebooks called ‘The Historical Records’, which reveal fragments of her country’s history as documented by various members of her family. Painstakingly Li-ling uses them – and Ai Ming’s memory – to try and piece together her father’s life. In doing so she learns about Ai Ming’s father, Sparrow who was a gifted composer and acted as Kai’s mentor, and Chuli, a violinist studying like Kai at the Shanghai Conservatory. This is not an easy task for Li-ling barely speaks or reads Chinese and loses her route to the past when Ai Ming suddenly disappears back to China.

What she does learn is painful. Her father was a pragmatist, his passion for music leading him to denounce Sparrow so he could take up a plum government approved position at Beijing and ultimately make his way to Canada.  Sparrow remained behind in Shanghai, his ambition abandoned along with his compositions under the weight of repeated investigations about his political beliefs and commitment to the Communist ethos. Forced to work in a radio-manufacturing plant, he has to re-evaluate his relationship with music that had ’blinded him to the world’ but without which he cannot survive.

More examples of suffering emerge when Li-ling learns of other generations of her family, among them her great-aunt Swirl who was sent to the labour camps in the 1950s, and her grandmother Big Mother Knife, a forceful street-wise woman who devotes her energy to sustain her family in the face of chaos and uncertainty.  Persecuted and frightened these people try to hold onto life and to the hope of a better future through music and the stories they tell.

it’s a melancholy tale enlivened by the redeeming value Thien ascribes to music and the power of the written word. Both are used as thematic and narrative devices to bring cohesion to a novel that could otherwise disintegrate in fragments. The Historical Records have an uncertain authorship but everyone who encounters them considers them critical to the act of making sense of their fractured world. Though dangerous to possess these books each character nevertheless protects them, meticulously copying them and sending them across the country so that others will know the truth. Running through the novel like a soundtrack is the music that sustains Sparrow, Jiang Kai and Zhuli from Beethoven’s Pastoral and Emperor symphonies,  Glen Gould’s two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and finally, Sparrow’s own composition of hope and redemption The Sun Shines on the People’s Square.

Do Not Say we Have Nothing is a masterful and thought provoking piece of work that weaves factual information together with digressions on the derivation of some character sets from Chinese language, the meaning of the number zero and the challenges of capturing history. It takes an author in complete command of their narrative to range this broadly and kept whole enterprise from collapsing into a disconnected muddle. That Thien pulls off such a feat with panache is amble demonstration that she deserves her place on the shortlist of both the Man Booker and the Scotiabank Giller Prize for 2016.

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Karen Heenan Davies blogs at Bookertalk

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta, 2016). 978-1783782666, 480 pp., hardback.

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