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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Review by Joseph Blake

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Madeleine Thien
Knopf, 2016

Montreal-based Canadian writer Madeleine Thien is a masterful new voice on the Canadian literary scene. Like Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and other writers who have brought world views and universal messages to embellish and emboss the Canadian mosaic, Thien's epic, familial narrative is a wise, nuanced, deeply spiritual gift.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a sprawling, fractured, music-inspired story. At its heart is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, particularly Glenn Gould’s brilliant recordings. The music’s echoing movements of Bach’s seemingly infinite lines of counterpoint are reflected in Thien’s tale, a blood-pumping soundtrack to suffering and redemption.

The author is a subtle, smart writer who also uses another piece of music with multiple messages as her book’s title. It’s from the Chinese translation of Eugéne Pottier's 19th century workers’ song, L' International with its “we are nothing/let's be everything” lyric. The Chinese state turned that lyric inside-out with its translation/version of the song stating, “Do not say we have nothing/ We shall be masters of the World!”

Thien opens her intergenerational tale in contemporary Vancouver with Marie, also known as Jiang Li-Ling or simply “girl”, the book's Chinese-Canadian narrator and her mother trying to decipher a letter that uses a form of state-sanctioned, simplified Chinese. The novel's characters, their lives stretching from Mao's revolutionary army's first battles to the modern diaspora in Canada, are brilliantly drawn and bring Chinese culture, history, and language to life with their depth.

Marie’s mother is linguistically stranded in Canada, and language is central to Thien’s nuanced tale. Jiang Kai, her husband, committed suicide in Hong Kong when Marie was a child, and it has seemingly sealed up his mysterious life. When Ai Ming, a teenage relative fleeing post-Tiananmen suppression turns-up in Vancouver, pieces of the narrative’s puzzle begin to fall into place.

Ai Ming is Sparrow’s daughter, one of the book's main characters, a composer and Jiang Kai's mentor who is also Zhuli's cousin, the book's third main character—a violinist and fellow student of Sparrow and Kai at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard's “struggle sessions.” The three musician/ friends' lives revolve around music, most importantly Western music. Overnight the music they write and perform, and in Thien's well-crafted portrayals literally breathe, is forbidden.

The book also focuses on three major events in a historical panorama stretching from Beijing in the north to rural Guangxi in the south. Thien’s narrative describes the Cultural Revolution that grows like cancer out of the violence, mistrust and suppression of the Communist take-over, the days leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and the aftermath of immigration to the west and the isolated narrator’s unraveling of the state-manipulated history through another component of Thien's tale, the collected stories in the mysterious Historical Records. In Thien’s telling, it’s a story that can't be remembered or forgotten.

In the course of this three-sided story, Thien offers intimate details of life in China that are often tragic and occasionally very funny. Thien creates a scope of history and humanity that is almost Shakespearean. Big Mother Knife, Sparrow’s mother is so quirky that her gruff and abrasive humour you’ll laugh out loud. She brings up Zhuli when Sparrow’s aunt Swirl and her husband are sent to a labour camp. The Storyteller Wen the Dreamer is another well-drawn minor character. He brings the ghostly Historical Records slowly into focus. That book unfolds in a set of notebooks that have been copied and recopied, passed hand to hand throughout Do Not Say We Have Nothing’s three-part historical span. Historical Records also references Sima Quian's classical book, Historical Records, perhaps China’s most important work of history. Sima Quian was castrated by the emperor for writing this masterpiece, perhaps another message of caution and warning folded into Thien’s multi-layered novel.

Thien's book is at its heart about her characters' unspoken intimacy, the masking of true selves, and their shared passion for music. It’s about quiet defiance in the face of state-manipulated history, labour camp condemnation and shared, brutal horror. Most importantly, it’s about resurrection and new beginnings. It’s a riveting, glorious book that echoes the Goldberg Variations’ transcendent, counterpoint beauty. It's a gem.

Joseph Blake is Music Editor for PRRB.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #21