This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”).
The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. But while I read it I often wondered in exasperation: Just how could people put up with this relentless repression? How could they put up with such massive insults to their dignity, how can they have such cowed acceptance of the bullying and betrayal by their own neighbours, peers, friends, and colleagues? How could they stand the mindless repetition of idiotic slogans? The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times.
Realism and detail
The novel is highly immersive and detailed, and even includes photos at crucial parts, such as the place in Hong Kong where one of the main characters killed himself (p.195), which is unexpectedly personal, as if the author has cast off the mantle of narrator and has reverted to autobiographical style. This high degree of realism, specifics and subjectivity results in a powerful emotional impact that has gained much publicity and praise for Thien’s work.
Also, Thien is a Canadian writing in English, not in translation, about Chinese subjects and themes, and so the novel provides a lens through which transpacific readers can view the “motherland”, China, differently and more critically. She puts China under a microscope and that is no small achievement considering the many characters and decades of history that she incorporates into the novel. She manages to fill an epic plot (or, as one reviewer called it, “a slow-burn saga”) stretching over almost five decades, with intimate details, lavish and particular descriptions of places, both the inner ramblings and lengthy discourses of characters, and the quite awful specifics of the misfortunes that people suffer. And running through all of that are the themes of Mathematics, music, poetry, Chinese calligraphy and politics.
Characterization and inner narratives
It is written from the perspective of the first person narrator, “Marie (Ma-li)” or “Li-ling JIANG”, [surnames in caps] living in the current day, in Vancouver, Canada, who is a Mathematician. She tries to unravel the story behind her father’s suicide, and the disappearance of her friend, “Ai-ming DENG”, and Ai-ming’s father, “Sparrow”. Sparrow was the true love of Li-ling’s father, “Kai”. Sometimes the transition to the back-story of the Li-ling and Ai-ming’s families is a bit awkward, as if the author has run out of options for how to make the shift from the present to the past. Later on the book consists almost entirely of the back-story, with an omnipresent 3rd person narrator, and no attempt at passing it off as a recollection. I found this, and the Chinese names and nick-names, confusing at times.
I also found the characterization a bit off in places, for instance that someone will go from rage to smiles to sadness to shrill screaming all in the space of one conversation. This is because Thien gives equal and simultaneous emphases to exterior narratives (or conversations between characters in groups or in public) and internal narratives (conversations characters have with themselves or in private). For example, a character will talk about politics, slogans and Chairman Mao Zedong in a way that just sounds insanely propagandistic and obscurely philosophical (and extremely long-winded!), and then switch to an anguished, internal monologue – and back to the group speak, and so forth. This, especially when a group of characters are depicted with each one contributing to the dialogue, is very hard to fathom for the reader but does convey the impression of the sharp, possibly life-threatening divide between private lives and public, social existences.
Themes of music, Chinese writing and an internal novel
Inner lives notwithstanding, there is a herd mentality to the people in the novel – they socialize, take up causes, work and revolt en masse. The characters who live alone and keep to themselves in this novel, like the character “Dreamer Wen”, stick out like sore thumbs. This makes the most prominent theme of the novel, that of music and musicians, very interesting, because music performance and creation is so individualistic.
Li-Ling’s father, Kai, was a classical pianist – and by classical Thien means mostly classical Western composers, like Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Canadian performers like Glenn Gould. (p. 14) Thien even illustrates this with a graphic of sheet music and conducting style (right). Sparrow studied at the same Conservatory of Music as Kai, and was a classical composer and teacher. Kai escaped to Canada, Sparrow stayed behind in China, stopped making music, and his only child, Ai-ming, was caught up in the student demonstrations of 1989 – with inevitable results.
Reading the novel is like being swept up in a raging river filled with debris – people’s lives like floating branches, leaves and refuse – going on and on and on.
Further complicating this dense and complicated flow of mothers, fathers, nieces, nephews, aunts, the dead and the living, and actual historical characters, is an inner novel, “The Book of Records”, which various characters in the narrative use as a “samizdat”, or handwritten book, altering the text and spreading copies around, to find and reconnect with banished and fleeing relatives and lovers.
Throughout the novel, the art of Chinese calligraphy, the Chinese writing system, and the theme of music and self-expression are strongly represented. For someone who can only read the Roman or Latin alphabet, it is hard to evaluate the significance of the inclusion of many examples of simplified and traditional Chinese characters or script. (The main character, Li-Ling, as a young Canadian, also has difficulty with Chinese.)
However, it is less hard to evaluate the basic conundrum in which the main characters find themselves: They lived for their music, which is highly personal, yet the Chinese Communist Party frowned on any personal interest, any personal worth or thought. Everything had to be for the people, the Party and the masses.
Theme: Give me liberty or give me death?
The core of the novel is in the title: the protagonists lose almost everything until they have next to nothing. They have a choice to flee the country or to stay and keep believing in the system and hope for something better. It is dreadfully miserable to read how they are stripped of everything until they basically have a bed to sleep on, some food to eat, a bike to ride and a horrible job to do – and a rope to hang themselves with. Yet, people are driven to express themselves. Love, for others, for music, for art, for poetry, cannot be repressed. It will out. They record their lives in “The Book of Records” and smuggle it, they hide music recordings, they keep music in their hearts, playing invisible instruments. They rise up against the state, because all they have left is their ability to fight back, like in the words of the “Internationale”, the left-wing worker’s anthem:
“Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say that we have nothing.
We shall be the masters of the world!”
Ironically, as is demonstrated in the book, the repressed workers become the next generation of tyrants, those slaves that arise now are the masters of the future who will repress those who have repressed them, and the students who themselves lost their rights, proceed to harass and punish other students and strip them of their rights. The left becomes the right, the right becomes the left again, and so on. It is really a case of the wheel turning. The “Internationale” in Chinese, which Thien quotes in the novel, has several different sets of lyrics. One such version served as the de facto anthem of the Communist Party of China, the national anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic, as well as a rallying song of the students and workers at the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
But one of the literal English translations goes: “We are nothing, let us be all.”
That is a truly scary thought.
The significance of “nothing”
In one of the saddest parts of the book, “Zhuli”, a teenage musical prodigy at the Conservatory, and family of Sparrow, becomes the victim of students out to punish people with “counter revolutionary” thinking. She kills herself because she simply cannot give up her music. A fellow student of hers, who wanted to return to the conservatory after the Cultural Revolution in 1977, explains his similar situation – and the significance of “nothing”:
“I had been a miner for six years, there was coal dust in my lungs, I’d broken all the fingers of my right hand, how could I possibly hold a violin? I told him, [the professor at the Conservatory] ‘I don’t know’. But he kept pushing me for an answer. It wasn’t enough for him that I loved music, that it had comforted me all this time, and I had promised myself that if I survived, I would devote myself to it. There were thousands of applicants for a handful of spots at the Conservatory. They all loved music as much as I did. Finally I told him the truth. I said, ‘Because music is nothing. It is nothing and yet it belongs to me. Despite everything that’s happened, it’s myself that I believe in.’ (p.301)
This theme of music – and other things that matter to people – being “nothing”, comes up frequently in the novel: Here, a family member called “Big Mother” is travelling on crowded train from Shanghai:
“The decrepit train hobbled on, into the humid South. Some little turd had drawn a lopsided egg on the dusty window, or maybe the egg was a zero left behind by someone with bad handwriting. What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you nothing about nothing. Still, wasn’t zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation [the numbered musical notation system widely used in music publications in China], zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like a desert, both finite and infinite?” (p.292).
These are serious abstract arguments and academic references for an old, low-educated grandma who is a product of the Great Leap Forward. It is also an instance where the “voice” of the character becomes a bit blurred.
So the title means, on the one hand, literally do not say we have nothing, do not say we have lost everything. On the other hand, that is all that the people in this novel have – their music, and it – apart from the Chinese Communist Party – is what determines their fates. They have ”nothing”, but that is still something.
No freedom of choice
One of the greatest deprivations the characters suffer is that they have most of their choices taken away from them, leaving them with only one – whether to accept their situations or not. Everything is decided by Party officials, where they live, what they do, what they read, even what they are supposed to think. It is this lack of choice that the young people in the novel, those who are teenagers during the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, rebel against most:
“She [Ma] lived far away because the government assigns our jobs and our housing.”
“But why? Why can’t we choose for ourselves?” Across from them, in the emptiness of the Square, there were posters asking this very same question. She [Ai-ming] was not alone in her thinking, she had nothing to fear. Ba [Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow] doesn’t even know how afraid he is, she thought. His generation has gotten so used to it, they don’t even know that fear is the primary emotion they feel.
“I chose my life, Ai-ming,” he said. “I chose the life I could live with. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way from the outside.”
”I want to know what it’s like in a young country with lots of space,” she said. “If you say something out loud, you hear your own voice differently.”
She said, “Canada.” (pp.356, 357)
Sparrow did not only follow the path of least resistance when it came to his choice of wife and career, he also gave up on the person he really loved, fellow musician, Kai.
“At some point they fell asleep on the floor. He [Sparrow] woke to the heaviness of Kai’s arm over him. It was hot, and sometime in the night, Kai had taken off his shirt and now lay, half undressed, beside him. How thin he had grown. Kai held him tightly, his mouth against Sparrow’s neck his breathing calm and undisturbed, but he was not asleep. Sparrow lay on his back and let his hand drift down to cover Kai’s. The pianist caressed him, tentatively at first and then with greater confidence. Sparrow’s hand followed Kai’s hand and an unbearable heat settled deep into his body. They lay together, frightened, half wishing sleep would come and take them, and release them from this aching, intolerable yearning. They drifted and woke and held one another, and in the fitfulness of Kai’s touch, he felt as loved as he had ever felt.” (p.227)
Kai is the ultimate changeling, a musician who is also a revolutionary cadre member, Party leader, and fervent spouter of slogans. But in actual fact he is subversive, in love with Sparrow, and convinced that they can build a new life together in Canada. He is bold and refuses to be beaten down by the system. Sparrow made a decision to go where the Party told him to go, since that meant his daughter, Ai-ming, stood a chance of attending Beijing University. The price he paid is that he ended up building radios for a living, never touched a violin again, had all but one of his compositions destroyed, and never saw Kai again. He reminded me of the words of Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
However, the deep-seated needs for self-determination and self-expression were not totally repressed in Sparrow. Deep inside him, though he had no audience and no instruments, he still had his music, and his one surviving composition, “The Sun Shines on the People’s Square”, was a classical work that was the antithesis of the revolutionary, simplistic and populist music that he had been ordered to write about workers, the party, the movement, etc.
The novel is like Thien describes Bach’s cantata, the “Actus Tragidus”; it is “kǔ lé, a state containing both joy and sorrow”(p.170) – or 苦中作乐 (trad. 苦中作樂) to “find bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”. It makes the reader happy that somehow, Li-ling ends her journey, and though she does not find all the answers, most of the history of her family is explained. The reader has some satisfaction that, leading up to the events in Tienanmen Square in 1989, things got better, but immediately gets let-down that it did not last. One does rather get a feeling of things rushing down-stream towards a terrible, inevitable end. The book has a list of references – many of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, and so is the unfortunate truth of the 1989 student uprising: it was also the Tienanmen Square massacre, one of the most sensitive and most widely censored political topics on mainland China.
I used to be very puzzled when seeing the old people who must have been of those generations in China and who have emigrated to Canada – their hunched frames, their thinness, their no-brand clothes and unisex hairstyles, their haunted eyes, their evasiveness, and their Little Kings and Queens of grandchildren over whom they stand guard on playgrounds. Now, when I see them, I think of the quote Thien used in the book: “I came into this world bringing only paper, rope, a shadow…” (p.472) Like the characters in the novel, they might have had very little – perhaps only “nothing” – in China and wanted very badly to come to Canada and give their children a better life than they had had. I get that now. Lesson learned. If a good novel makes you think, this one certainly did. If good art has the power to change perceptions, this work actually did change my thinking.
Summary and awards
Here is an excellent summary of the plot of the novel, from The Guardian U.K., by Isabel Hilton. In 2016 the author was awarded both the Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
About the author
This is Madeleine Thien’s profile at publisher Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.: “Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes, which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a Kiriyama Pacific Prize Notable Book, and won the BC Book Prize for Fiction; the novel Certainty, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award; and the novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her novels and stories have been translated into twenty-five languages, and her essays have appeared in Granta, The Guardian, the Financial Times, Five Dials, Brick and Al Jazeera. Her story “The Wedding Cake” was shortlisted for the prestigious 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal.” (Rtrvd.: 2016-12-14)