Review: ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

The beginning of Madeleine Thien’s Man Booker-shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as startling and seductive as the ending is frustrating. The novel begins: ‘In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time to end his marriage and the second, when he took his own life’. From the very first sentence of Thien’s novel, the linguistic simplicity, even as it describes such emotional complexity, is shocking, refreshing. In a book so long and seemingly convoluted, there is always the danger the story will get lost in historical detail as we move into the worlds of the other characters – Kai and his two friends Sparrow and Zhuli, who live in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, and Sparrow’s daughter Ai-Ming, who is involved in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. It is a mark of Thien’s talent that the book remains engrossing: Alice Munro noted the ‘clarity, the emotional purity’ of Thien’s work early on. Thien achieves such clarity by underpinning the novel, both structurally and thematically, with music.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.
Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli are all immensely talented musicians – it is music which holds them together, even though, as Kai is a Red Guard and Zhuli the daughter of a ‘counter-revolutionary’, the two are expected to be enemies. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (specifically, Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 versions) serve as a motif throughout the novel. Sparrow listens to Gould’s variations in Shanghai years before Marie, our narrator and Kai’s daughter, decides to analyse Gould for her PhD thesis. In an interview with the BBC Thien explained her decision to use Bach’s counterpoint to structure her work. She described the two different yet harmonious lines representing the ‘heartbreak’ and love between the two families, noting the ‘joy and sorrow’ and ‘simplicity and complexity’ which weave the Goldberg variations together. Despite the fact that listening to most of it was banned in the Cultural Revolution, Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli remain obsessed with works of Western classical music which for them serve as liberating forces.

Both composing music and writing are transgressive acts – writing doesn’t necessarily enforce an authorized, accepted national history, but allows for private stories to pass between generations of families, stories which tell a different narrative. Although Thien shows how language in a political climate holds enormous power, she also explores the inadequacy of words. It is music rather than fiction which provides her characters with consolation. Music in Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, like writing, a record of human history, of personal history rather than the public narrative we are taught; Sparrow creates music even when he is forbidden to do so.

Music, writing, time and history are inseparable in Thien’s work. The cyclical nature of history is mourned even whilst the survival of creative acts is celebrated. Just as music ‘echoes’ through the novel, the past echoes in the present and echoes are called back from the future. Fiction is a call to the present to answer for what has happened, to recognise the past and make it mean something, to challenge the present with alternative narratives. The Book of Records, the book that passes between Zhuli’s father and generations of her, Sparrow’s, and Kai’s families, is ‘set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived’. History is unfinished, continuing, like the novel itself, which ends without any definite sense of closure, with the only certainty that ‘not everything will pass’. Marie never finds her beloved Ai-Ming. But deferral of closure in Thien’s novel doesn’t mean utter loss. If characters can communicate for years through passing a work of fiction between them, Marie and Ai-Ming can also find each other by doing so.

The voices of children and teenagers are conveyed powerfully in Thien’s novel. There is a doubleness to Marie’s narration, as an older narrator looks back on her childhood, yet this double vision never swamps the very distinctive child’s voice. Moments of humour and human contact emerge which surface above the brutality, the physicality of the revolution. The novel is far from bleak. Love permeates the text and many of the characters love each other so intensely that they merge together. Each of the characters meditates on their own sense of duality, seeing their self as split. Marie is a ‘well-adjusted’ child in school, and yet at home still hears her father’s voice years after his death. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli are all parts of one whole. Ai-Ming and Zhuli look identical. There are doublings over and over within this novel, adding to the idea of the circularity of history. And all the characters are driven to desperate measures to preserve their ‘core’ in a world that drives it to splinter.

Portrait of the author © Humanitas, courtesy of the publisher.
Portrait of the author © Humanitas, courtesy of the publisher.

Thien wants her novel to be published in China, even if in order to have it so, the third part of the book – which focuses on Ai-Ming’s involvement in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations – needs to be cut; even if that means it ‘ends mid-sentence’. The fragmentary nature of history and fiction – the impossibility of knowing the whole story – recurs throughout Thien’s work. Ai-Ming says, ‘The things we never say aloud … end up here … in private places’. The Book of Records, found in fragments, encompasses the ‘unobserved’, the inner creative impulse, the ‘core’ of the self. People disappear throughout the novel. They are never lost completely. Their histories return in their many acts of creation.

Thien has said, ‘It’s not an idea we have in the West where newness and originality is always a break from the past’. Her novel refuses to break with the past, recognising that everything is circular, repetitive. Her own newness and originality is found in her attempt to rewrite the past. Thien wants to ‘stand before power and speak honestly’. She refuses, as her characters do, to vanish before power – even if her work is published in fragments, it remains subversive. The unobserved life has not disappeared completely. It resurfaces powerfully in fiction, in the voices of those who remain.

Tilly Nevin

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ is published by Granta, RRP £12.99.

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