Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A multi-generational, continent spanning epic of two families bound together by music, dictatorship and political turmoil; beginning with the Chinese cultural revolution, the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the denunciation of its musicians, the brutal machine of Mao’s communist china and the violent repercussions of the Tiananmen square demonstrations.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins with 10 year old Marie living with her mother in Vancouver, Canada. The arresting first line tells of the year that her father, Jiang Kai, leaves his wife and child behind- the next news they hear is of his suicide in Hong Kong. Broken, left with few memories other than her father’s favourite music, Marie begins to gain perspective on her Father’s mysterious earlier life through the presence and the stories of Ai-Ming, a Chinese refugee that has been sent to live with them. Marie begins to unknot the stands of her father’s life before he was a father-the people he loved and was deeply connected to, among them, Ai-ming's father, the gifted composer and musician Sparrow.

Marie acts as a kind of anchor for the story, bridging the past and present. We check in with her at 10, during her brief connection with Ai-Ming, then regularly as she ages, always seeking the friend that became like a sister to her. Ai-ming brought with her to Canada a set of hand-lettered notebooks, the Book Of Records, an adopted, ever evolving narrative that seems to be constructed of the past, the present and the fantastical all at once. The Book of Records and its creation, survival and legacy is another constant throughout the novel- across the continents, decades and generations.  It is in this book that messages, locations and meanings are hidden via the double-meanings of Chinese lettering and calligraphy.

Throughout the historical sections, three young musicians are central to the story: Jiang Kai, the successful pianist, Zhuli, the incredibly young, gifted violinist and perhaps most importantly, her cousin Sparrow, the quiet and sensitive, highly respected composer. These are the second generation of characters, Zhuli being the only daughter of convicted rightists Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, Sparrow being the son of Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife. The trio of musicians are colleagues and close personal friends, two of them are cousins and the third, an orphan is practically family. Their relationships grow more complex with time, with the intensity of their pursuit of music, their implicit mutual understanding of one another and, unforgettably, the relentless march of communism. We follow Sparrow most closely, who seems to have everything to give and everything to lose- he is the one most broken by the difficult times that he must try to survive through.

I loved the characters in this- I saw them so clearly. Sparrow’s potential and pain, the injustice of his assignment to the radio factory. He was so accepting of everything his life threw at him- so good at hiding who he really was. Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife were incredible characters too- a whole generation of invisible people for whom second guessing every thought and feeling became second nature. Big Mother Knife especially was a brilliant creation- indestructible, apparently immortal and the utter embodiment of a solid, fearsome woman that you Would Not Mess With.

I loved the gorgeous, lyrical language, the sensory nature of the prose and how the author integrated music into the story- again, another thing I am so horribly ignorant of. Though I have no schooling in classical music myself, the characters’ adoration of music is palpable- their dedication and commitment to music was instantly and consistently evident; their talents so obvious, so beautiful and so dangerous. I actually listened to Bach's Goldberg Variations just to try and understand Sparrow’s dedication to it.

The novel reminded me frequently of Julian Barnes’s fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also was beautifully written and littered with musical liberation and political oppression and extremism. Shostakovich gets namechecked frequently, along with Bach and other non-revolutionary musical powerhouses. 

I soldiered on through this book despite my slow progress and my lack of familiarity with the time and issues; as usual it was my dire knowledge of world history that let me down. I know nothing about Chinese history, the rise or fall of Communism, the Cultural Revolution or any of it. This book was a horrifying education. It’s hard to believe the scale of suffering, oppression, starvation, displacement, fear and absolute dismantling of the individual that this book depicts. The ruthlessness of a government, the disastrous chasing of a political ideology that turns the whole country into a production machine, making components of its citizens.

I would absolutely recommend this book, though it is a commitment and a bit of an ordeal to read. It’s harrowing and beautiful, incredibly brutal and haunting too. The characters and the music get under the readers’ skin, and the injustice and trauma of the Mao administration, the identity theft of a whole nation is shocking and truly thought provoking. I would never have normally read this had it not been for the Bailey’s prize, but I am immensely glad that I did as I think it will stay with me for a long time.

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