Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is a novel of epic proportions. It tells the story of two families whose lives intersect during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, culminating in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The novel opens with Marie (Jiang Li-Ling), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, living in Canada with her mother. Her father has abandoned them and returned to Hong Kong where he later commits suicide. When the daughter of one of her father’s former friends arrives at their home seeking refuge, Marie begins a fractured odyssey to learn of her roots. Her odyssey unveils an intricate web of connections with family and friends who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution. Woven within the shifting time lines and different generations are actual historical events that lend authenticity to the novel.
Thien portrays a memorable array of characters with colorful names like Big Mother, Knife, Old Cat, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, Ling, Sparrow, Ai-ming, and Flying Bear. Each character struggles to maintain a semblance of personal dignity and authenticity while living within the severe restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Against the backdrop of famine in the countryside, portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou EnLai glaring from city street corners and inside buildings, forced separation of families, “re-education” in labor camps, random accusations of “counter-revolutionary” activities, neighbors betraying neighbors to save themselves, the parroting of the latest government sponsored slogans, castigation of students and faculty for their embrace of European music and musical instruments, and government sanctioned torture and executions, Thien details how a repressive regime instills fear by invading every aspect of people’s daily lives.
The characters pursue a variety of paths to survive the onslaught of repressive measures. Some take to hiding their libraries in secret, underground cellars; some communicate secret messages encoded in The Book of Records; some transport themselves to different worlds by composing and/or playing classical music; some acquiesce to the demands of the regime; while others refuse to submit and are punished accordingly or go into hiding. For some the daily humiliations and beatings are too hard to tolerate, and they commit suicide.
The characters meditate on the nature of time; the many uses of language to hide, reveal, betray, and coerce statements of self-incrimination; the definition of art; and the power of literature to link past, present, and future. But it is music that plays the most prominent role in the novel. References to classical music and the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev infuse the novel and stitch together the lives of the characters, providing them with solace and a temporary means to escape the brutal reality of their lives. The characters immerse themselves in and have an intimate relationship with music. Young Zhuli is a gifted violinist who takes her own life after suffering a demoralizing humiliation and severe beating; her uncle Sparrow, on the faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory, is a brilliant composer who experiences a shut down of his creative juices for decades; and the talented pianist Kai eventually takes his own life, unable to forgive himself for betraying friends and colleagues.
Thien has crafted a novel deeply rooted in the politics of China, but its detailed depiction of life under a repressive government is universal. The location may change; the players may change; but the nature of oppression does not. As Old Cat says to Zhuli:
If they want to come for you, they will come, and it doesn’t matter what you read or what you failed to read. The books on your shelves, the music you cherish, the past lives you’ve lived, all these details are just an excuse. In the old days, spite and jealousy drove the eunuchs in all their power struggles. Perhaps we live in a new age, but people don’t change overnight.
A powerful novel, complex in execution, panoramic in scope and depth, profound in insight, and universal in applicability.