It is extraordinary that Montreal-based author Madeleine Thien has the guts and stamina to keep writing about the things she keeps writing about. Her first novel, Certainty, explored the trauma of life in Northern Borneo under Japanese occupation in the Second World War. She followed that with Dogs at the Perimeter, a searing dissection of Cambodia during the nightmarish Khmer Rouge years of the 1970s. Now, in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, her most ambitious work to date, she tracks the lives of three gifted musicians, plus their families and friends, through the tumultuous decades of Mao Zedong’s China and its troubled aftermath. All these novels use as their framework the quiet, enigmatic lives of survivors or their children in Canada, where characters mine the past incessantly even as they try to envisage a healthier, more hopeful, more “normal” future.
For readers who prefer their novels to be about something rather than an ever deeper excavation of the solipsistic western self, Thien delivers in spades. She has clearly done years of historical research into the turbulent timelines of 20th-century China, and it is not a bad idea to have Wikipedia nearby while reading her (“Hmmm … I’d forgotten that the Hundred Flowers Campaign happened as early as 1956, and that it was really a trick to uncover dissidents by encouraging criticisms of the government and the party”). At the same time, Thien cares deeply about her characters’ inner lives and presents them with a full panoply of pain, humour, neuroses, memory and imagination so that they cease appearing as “others” and more as we ourselves might feel in like situations.
Thien’s plots are always complicated, but the challenge of untangling them is part of the pleasure. In this third novel, the three main characters are Sparrow, a composer; his niece Zhuli, a gifted violinist; and his student Kai, a brilliant but also very political pianist. The centre of their lives is the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where giants of the western canon—especially Bach and Beethoven—share space with great Russian modernists such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while the more specialized Chinese ethnomusicologists are up on the top floor, composing for the erhu and the guqin. (Once the Cultural Revolution begins, of course, all 500 of the pianos in the conservatory are gleefully destroyed, the place is emptied, a number of the faculty commit suicide. Songs such as “Night Bell from the Old Temple” and “Young Soldier’s Joy” replace the Emperor Concerto and Glenn Gould’s version of the Goldberg Variations.)
Although Sparrow is the son of a blustery and hilarious pair of parents named Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, he grows up shy and nervous and only happy when alone and composing in one of the conservatory studios. Once the Red Guards arrive, his strategy is simply to vanish into the proletariat, first working in a box-making factory and then soldering radios for 20 years. Zhuli shares her uncle’s obsession with music and is equally appalled when the full force of the Cultural Revolution descends on her slim shoulders: although her mother has good political credentials, her father Wen the dreamer comes from the despised landlord class, which seals Zhuli’s fate as a musician. In some ways most interesting of the three is Kai the pianist, a genuine son of the soil who has watched his entire family die of starvation in their poverty-stricken village in 1959. He is devoted to music, but even more to survival, and he ends up—after denouncing many of his colleagues, including Zhuli—moving to Beijing to become a member of Madame Mao’s showcase orchestra. Compromise, the idiotic parroting of political slogans, betrayal, guilt—and the occasional fragile moments of solace from music or love—these are the components of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli’s lives, and to follow them through these pages is not a pleasant or easy fictional journey, but it is an eye-opening one.
In interviews, Thien has chafed somewhat at being pigeon-holed as a historical novelist and rightly so. It is clear that Do Not Say We Have Nothing employs the full toolbox of modern self-referential fiction techniques as well as classical narrative. The framework of the book is seen through the eyes of Marie, the daughter of Kai, a young mathematician growing up in Vancouver, and through those of Ai-Ming, the daughter of Sparrow, who flees China after the Tiananmen Square debacle and fetches up first in Canada, then the United States, and then China again, before vanishing into thin air. These young women cannot stop asking questions: about the real nature of the relationship between their two fathers, for example, and about their ability to move forward with so many dead, invisible weights behind them. Ai-Ming longs to share her questions with other students of the Tiananmen generation: “Doesn’t it all seem absurd to you? Why do we have no words for what we truly feel? What’s wrong with our parents?”
Thien has an answer of her own to these agonizing existential questions, which may satisfy some readers while leaving others frustrated. Using the Chinese art of calligraphy as an overriding metaphor, she posits the idea that telling the story and writing it down in beautifully crafted Chinese characters, then copying it over and over and circulating it, then subtly changing it as time goes by, may be as close as we can ever come to touching the truth about others’ lives and our own.
A great deal of Thien’s narrative is taken up with a mysterious Book of Records, in 42 chapters, which many of the book’s characters are constantly reading, copying, distributing, hiding, and searching for and embedding with coded names and information. When Ai-Ming makes her dash for North America, with the book in her suitcase, she muses:
Could it be that everything in this life has been written from the beginning? Ai-Ming could not accept this. I am taking this written record with me, she thought. I am keeping it safe. Even if everything repeats, it is not the same … She could take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records … She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.
This is exactly what Thien is doing in her novel. Even though she focuses on just two or three families linked by their love of music, in a much larger sense she is creating a memorial for the millions of lives lost, disappeared, shrivelled or wasted during not just the years of Mao’s reign but back to the famine of 1910 and forward to the dashed hopes of Tiananmen in 1989.
That is some accomplishment.