Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge.
In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien tells a family saga lived through the tumult of political upheaval in Communist China. The story moves from Canada in 1989, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square student-led rebellion, to China in the years following the Communist victory in the civil war, through the land reforming Great Leap Forward to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and on to the events that took place in and around Tiananmen Square. It’s a political novel, but in a quiet way. It talks about loss of beauty as well as loss of freedom. It talks of how music inhabits us, is part of everything we do, has a power in people’s lives every bit as potent as politics. It talks about the violence of politics under an autocratic regime, but matter of factly. It is a thing that happens, it is devastating, but life goes on.
Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. She is ten. Her father is dead. He left them to return to China when the student rebellion began. He killed himself while he was there. Ai-ming is the daughter of Li-ling’s father’s friend. She is smuggled out of China and comes to live with Li-ling and her mother. There are all kinds of things that are being kept secret, but slowly Ai-ming tells Li-ling the story of their fathers’ combined past, of life under the Communists.
The strongest characters in the book are the women. The men are absent in different ways. Paralysed by their loss of freedom, trapped behind the façade of their own bluster, moving like ghosts through their lost hopes, dead by their own hand. The women are practical and present, carrying on, doing what they can to exist. I thought that was an interesting distillation of the differences between men and women. I don’t know if it was deliberate on Thien’s part, or accidental.
The novel is about family memory, the stories generations pass down and the secrets people keep. There are secrets kept through the memory being too traumatic, and secrets kept through some self-determined sense of shame. There are stories that build a personal myth and give each generation a sense of belonging and continuity. None of these stories or secrets are ever an accurate truth. They are a version of events built to comfort us. I’m thinking about family stories at present because of my mum’s passing. There’s nobody now to ask questions of. Nobody against whom to measure my sense of self in relation to the line stretching back through time. I have my brother and sister, but we make a horizontal line. We are each other’s immediate context. It’s a continuation of the sense of unmooring that began when my dad died and my mum’s memory began to fail. I can only really tell stories to myself now. I don’t have children to pass them on to, and I no longer have parents with whom I can confirm my stories. As Thien has Li-ling note, there will always be gaps in the stories we pass on, volumes missing from the annals of our lives. It’s as it should be.
The novel is also a love story conducted through the pages of a book, the Book of Records. This book brings together a poet, Wen the Dreamer, and a singer, Swirl. The book is passed down from Swirl via her sister Big Mother Knife. One volume finds its way to Li-ling among her father’s abandoned papers. Through its discovery, Ai-ming starts to tell Li-ling about the past. It’s a complex past, full of frustration and fear, with love a thin, fragile thread holding people together. It’s a past that focuses on the experiences of three musicians – Sparrow (the son of Big Mother and father to Ai-ming), his cousin Zhuli (daughter of Swirl and Wen the Dreamer) and Jiang Kai (Li-ling’s father). Together they experience everything Mao’s regime can throw at them as children of alleged rightists, children of land owners, children of poets and musicians, musicians themselves, liberals who are viewed with suspicion, no matter what they do. When the Cultural Revolution begins, it is terrifying for those who are its targets. I became so immersed in the story that it made my head hurt. Like Zhuli in the days following her euphemistically named struggle session, I was in a trance for a while, trying to understand what the point of such barbarity was.
When the Cultural Revolution ends, lives change again. Those who spent that decade struggling are miraculously rehabilitated. Those who shunned them reappear to make amends. The focus of the story moves to Sparrow’s life with Ai-ming in the run up to the Tiananmen Square student-led rebellion. He emerges a changed man. He reacts to the students’ rebellion and the government’s reaction to it in a very different way. Thien’s telling of a story I witnessed at a remove on tv through a Western capitalist filter was every bit as compelling as her telling of the story of the Cultural Revolution. It made personal and real something that previously had felt somehow closed off.
It struck me as I read that a lot of what I read at present is about people living under regimes that suppress individuality and that persecute people for arbitrary reasons. These stories are about the way people assimilate in order to survive, whether that’s through surrendering themselves to victimisation or looking away as the persecution goes on. I don’t know whether that’s coincidence, or a pattern in literature, or me being more attuned to it because of the times I’m living in.
Another theme I’ve noticed recently in a few of the books I’ve read is grief. This book is full of it. It is riddled with loss. I found it difficult to read at times, to read the pain of the characters’ different griefs while I am still moving through mine. I recognised it. The confusion and the hoping that it will one day end.
The book also talks about a secret life of music in Communist China. It seems strange to me, as someone for whom all music is culture, that a political regime would and could identify one narrow definition of music as culture and decree that all other music is corrupt. That’s what Mao did. Stalin did it too (Julian Barnes’s book The Noise of Time imagines Shostakovich’s life during Stalin’s Terror very well). Hitler, of course. It’s a despot thing, I guess.
I can’t imagine living in a place where music is banned. There have been attempts in my lifetime to ban certain songs from public broadcast because some narrow-minded establishment DJ has taken offence to the lyrics of a pop song, but I can’t recall anything being banned outright as a policy of the state.
Music is very important to me. I grew up in a house where music was everywhere. My dad always had the latest in audio equipment. He’d go without something else just so he could be sure he was hearing music with all the richness of tone it’s supposed to have. He’s the one who taught me how to adjust bass and treble levels so that the sound coming from the speakers isn’t flat. He also taught me that speakers and headphones are as important as the amplifier, the record deck, the tape deck.
My dad loved classical, swing and jazz. My mum loved opera, pop and crooners. My sister loved Bowie, Roxy Music and New Wave. My brother loved heavy metal, blues and Queen. I love a bit of everything as a result.
The thing about music that makes it such a fundamental part of my life is partly captured in this line from the novel:
The young woman’s music contained poetry and the written word, and yet it travelled far beyond them to a realm, a silence, he had believed inexpressible.
It’s that thing about being transported out of myself. Sometimes, when I listen to music, I feel as though I am being stretched apart. There is something in the core of me that swells and separates itself from my physical body. It can be any kind of music. It just has to contain something that feels honest, that feels as though it comes from that same inner core in the composer or performer. It can be the emotion in the music or the poetry in the lyrics. It’s not an experience I get from any other artform. Literature sometimes comes close, but there’s always the brake of intellect there, the processing of words on a page into feelings in my mind. Music bypasses that. It’s more directly stimulating.
But enough about all that.
This novel is excellent, if a little harrowing at times. I know that the relentless persecution experienced by some during Mao’s Cultural Revolution was more than harrowing for those who fell victim to it, but to have it condensed into a novel was psychologically tiring.
In other news, the way in which Thien also talks abstractly about the mathematics of music, and the leitmotif of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, reminded me of Richard Powers’ The Goldbug Variations. And that’s a book I must re-read. I loved it the first time around.
As I read the book, I listened to many of the compositions mentioned within its pages. I even made a Spotify playlist.