There is so much going on in Madeleine Thien’s third novel that it’s hard, at times, to keep things straight. Nevertheless, the book is worth the effort because of the richness of detail the author provides.
The structure of the novel gives a clue to its complexity. Do Not Say We Have Nothing examines the lives of musicians in 20th-century China, and the effect of the monumental political changes that had ruinous effects on people’s lives. Part One contains eight chapters, which are numbered sequentially. The next section, called Part Zero, reverses the order, counting down from seven to one. This is followed by a coda that concludes the novel. Time shifts back and forth within chapters, and the focus shuffles among several characters in two connected families. Notes at the end identify the sources of quotations; in addition to Thien’s own immaginative narrative, massive research was undertaken in the writing of this novel.
The book opens with Jiang Li-Ling, or – to use her Canadian name – Marie Jiang. In 1989, when Vancouver-raised Marie is 10, her father, Jiang Kai, travels to Hong Kong, where he commits suicide. After the Tiananmen Square uprising, a young woman named Ai-Ming comes to Canada and stays for a while with Marie and her mother. Ai-Ming is the daughter of Sparrow, the man who taught composition to Marie’s father at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s, before the Cultural Revolution.
The novel explores the history of both families, ranging from Sparrow’s parents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, to Big Mother’s younger sister, Swirl, her second husband, Wen the Dreamer, and their daughter Zhuli, a gifted musician. Thien shows us Ai-Ming’s youthful desire to attend Beijing University and Jiang Kai’s upbringing after his entire family dies in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. We are also given scenes from Marie’s life with her mother, and following her mother’s death.
To complicate things even more, Thien has also woven into her narrative a meditation on the process of creating stories. Wen the Dreamer woos Swirl by giving her hand-copied chapters of a novel called Book of Records, which contain coded stories intended to evade the notice of the Chinese government. Throughout Thien’s novel, the power of language is central, and various kinds are referenced: English, Mandarin, traditional and simplified Chinese, and musical notation.
Many of the characters are focused on music, specifically Western music. Sparrow is a gifted composer; Jiang Kai a superb pianist; and Zhuli a promising violinist. All of them have desires that cannot be fulfilled because of the political situations they face; the governmental strictures that stand in their way mean that the course of their lives is effectively decided for them. In some cases, Thien’s characters find themselves stymied by the actions of their parents. If the elders are deemed class traitors, it doesn’t matter what their children do. If the government decides to send composers, like Sparrow, to work in a factory, that’s what happens. Families that are separated have no recourse, and it’s often impossible to know whom one can trust or what government officials will decide is acceptable or appropriate. For example, two of Thien’s male characters love each other, but they know they cannot pursue their feelings.
The novel becomes a study of human endurance, though it’s clear that endurance has limits. When the conservatory is closed, many of the teachers commit suicide. Many others are killed for their beliefs or their actions. Still others, such as Sparrow, choose to bury their dreams. He is given the chance to resume composing, but rejects the offer. Thien dramatizes the ways he attempts to maintain some sense of himself and his individual identity while also negotiating the overwhelming force of changing public standards.
Tension between society and the individual is likely ever-present in human interaction, but in a society where citizens are expected to sacrifice personal goals and aspirations in the service of the greater good – a greater good that often shifts radically and brutally, and in which some people will always suffer more than others – the value of human life cannot be overstated. The staggering loss of life that resulted from the Great Leap Forward – perhaps as many as 35 million people – is incomprehensible. What Thien manages, at least some of the time, is to humanize that loss, and to do so through the metaphor of music. In effect, Thien asks how one composes a life, even in the face of externally imposed limitations.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is hugely ambitious, and takes work to follow its many characters, places, shifts in time, and mysteries. But it unequivocally delivers on an emotional level: it’s so incredibly sad.