By Michael Rank
The extraordinary upheavals that China has undergone over the past fifty years call for an epic novel depicting great suffering as well as hope and joy. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which focuses on the experiences of a family of musicians from the time of the Anti-rightist Campaign of the late 1950s to the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989, attempts to be that novel.
The book, which is short listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, starts off in modern-day Vancouver, the hometown of the author, who is the daughter of Chinese-Malaysian parents. The novel begins arrestingly: “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.” The narrator, Marie Jiang, or Jiang Li-ling, is like the author a Canadian born to Chinese parents, but in the novel they are from China itself rather than from the overseas community. Marie was a small child when her father killed himself in Hong Kong and for many years she knew little about him, but by the time the book opens she has discovered that he was born in a small village outside Changsha and against all odds became a renowned concert pianist.
But before finding out much more about the narrator’s father we are introduced to Ai-ming, the wise and beautiful daughter of his best friend and sometime lover, the composer Sparrow. She has fled to Canada after the June 4th massacre, staying with Marie and her mother. But Ai-ming then leaves for the United States where she disappears without trace, and we hear little more of her until a final Coda in which the story backtracks to tell how she managed to escape from China through central Asia and eventually make it to Vancouver.
But Ai-ming and her flight do not form the focus of the novel. The book centres on Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, and Sparrow, who both attend the Shanghai Conservatoire, together with their friends and relatives in the late 1950s and early 60s. They play and listen to a wide range of western music from Bach – they have a special love of Glenn Gould’s recordings – to Shostakovich, but as the Cultural Revolution sets in all such music is banned, Sparrow’s female cousin Zhuli commits suicide and the rest of the group are sent to factories and “re-education” camps. The novel mixes social and political realism with a heavy dose of symbolism, much of which hangs on a mysterious document called the Book of History that is sent chapter by chapter to Swirl, a widowed former singer in teahouses. “On the surface,” we are told, “the story was a simple epic chronicling the fall of empire, but the people inside the book reminded [Swirl] of people she tried not to remember: her brothers and parents, her lost husband and son. People who, against their will, had been pushed by war to the cliff’s edge.” This “simple epic” – whatever that is supposed to mean – keeps recurring throughout the novel, and we are told at one point that its aim is to “populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.” This seems to suggest that the Book of History is intended at least partly to correct the Communist Party’s disgraceful distortion of recent Chinese history, if this is so the point becomes lost as references to the epic become increasingly obscure.
The main body of the novel ends in realist mode with a vivid description of the events leading up to the 1989 massacre, in which Sparrow is killed just as he is planning to emigrate to Canada to be reunited with Jiang Kai. The students are full of hope as they begin their sit-in, but their hopes are soon shattered as their ideals drown in bloodshed.
Thien sometimes comes up with vivid similes, as at the very beginning when Marie recalls her father wearing “glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest or curtains.” And another character is described as having “gotten plump in the belly but not in the legs and he resembled a pear on toothpicks” (although “and he resembled” rather than “making him resemble” is rather clumsy, see below).
At her best Thien convincingly melds the personal and the political, as when Sparrow wants to write a symphony that reflects the way “Time itself, the hours, minutes and seconds, the things they counted and the way they counted them, had sped up in the New China. He wanted to express this change, to write a symphony that inhabited both the modern and the old: the not yet and the nearly gone.” But his efforts are not appreciated. The Union of Composers declares that the symphony “suffered from formalism and useless experimentation; the solemnity of the third movement did nothing to elevate the People; and the meaning, overall, was not immediately clear.” This kind of Stalinist condemnation sounds all too likely, and incidents like this make the novel utterly believable. But much of the time I felt that the author was being over-ambitious, weighing it down with obscure symbolism, and I got lost in the welter of characters with names such as Big Mother Knife, the Old Cat and Biscuit whose role was unclear to me.
The book also contains some inaccuracies, most seriously several times referring to Deng Xiaoping as Mao’s successor as Party Chairman. In fact Deng never assumed this title even though he was China’s paramount leader from 1978 until he retired in 1989. And on a musical note, I seriously doubt whether a concert shortly after Mao’s death in 1976 would have featured Mahler, Beethoven and Aaron Copland (Beethoven alone would have been pretty daring so soon after the downfall of the Gang of Four).
The author has done her homework, and the book has seven pages of endnotes, quoting sources ranging from biographies of Bach and Brahms to the works of Mao and eyewitness accounts of the June 4th massacre. She has also read books on the fate of Western music under Mao, and two real-life musicians, the head of the Shanghai Conservatoire, He Luting, and the best-known conductor of the Mao era, Li Delun, have walk-on parts in the novel. Both suffered badly in the Cultural Revolution, and He is widely remembered for having on live television defied the Red Guards who beat him, denying that he was a counter-revolutionary or traitor.
Thien sometimes cites Chinese characters in the text, but these seem mainly based on dictionary knowledge of the language rather than familiarity with Chinese as it is actually used. To quote just one example, Big Mother Knife misunderstands someone saying xíng lù “executed like criminals” as meaning “travelling – like criminals”, as the words for “executed” and “travel” are said by Thien to be homophonous, xíng lù, written 刑戮 and 行路 respectively. But the word xíng lù “execution” is highly literary and rarely if ever used in speech, and xíng lù 行路 “travel/walk” is also literary and is not used in modern spoken Mandarin. In context, this misunderstanding makes even less sense, with Big Mother thinking she “had mistakenly heard” one for the other – if she was aware of having misunderstood something, then surely she hadn’t misunderstood it in the first place?
Not only is Thien’s Chinese often askew, but so sometimes is her English. She several times refers to “writing” rather than “taking” an exam, and she occasionally uses odd phrases, as when she tells of a character who kneels down “to reach her [a child’s] height.” I find this puzzling, and think she could have done with a better editor.
Some readers may find such criticism nitpicking, but I found these errors distracting and rather irritating. This novel — the first chapter of which can be found here – has garnered enthusiastic reviews, for example in the Guardian, Financial Times and Toronto Globe and Mail. Yet, in my opinion, it tries too hard and often seems to be grasping at something which I could only guess at. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel of enormous scope that movingly portrays the bravery and suffering of musicians during the Cultural Revolution, but it is hampered by a rather diffuse plot that veers uneasily between realism and a vaguely mythical epic quality.
Oh, and the book’s title: it’s said to a line from the Internationale, but it’s not in any version I can find (see here for a number of English translations). Another puzzle in a rather puzzling book.
Michael Rank graduated from Cambridge University in Chinese Studies in 1972, studied in Beijing and Shanghai during the last years of the Cultural Revolution decade, was a Reuters correspondent in China in the early 1980s, and is now retired. Deeply interested in linguistics and in the relationship between George Orwell and China, his recent writings on these and other subjects, as well as his book reviews, can be found at his blog.