“Multiple and Conflicting Answers”: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

A recurring theme in my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist is originality – or, more accurately if informally, “samey-ness”. Both Eileen and His Bloody Project felt familiar in one way or another, even where they made claims for being otherwise; so far in my readings only The Sellout had a voice and a purpose all its own. This state of affairs is not altered by Madeleine Thien’s nevertheless tenderly written family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

In part, Thien is unfortunate to publish her novel of musicians in a totalitarian regime in the same year that Julian Barnes published The Noise of Time. Perhaps this novel has been overlooked for the Booker because it retreads ground previously covered by his prize-winning The Sense of an Ending; but The Noise of Time still feels slimmer, swifter and more sly than Thien’s shortlisted effort. Her novel is far more expansive – The Noise of Time never leaves the consciousness of Dmitry Shostakovich, whereas Do Not Say We Have Nothing features an ever-expanding cast of characters spread out over more or less one hundred years. But Thien, too, is interested in how artists – how people – can be true and authentic in a society like Mao’s China, and she quotes not just Shostakovich but Prokofiev, too.

At the centre of Thien’s novel are three musicians who each take a different route through China’s mid-century catastrophes, barely surviving the Great Leap Forward and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. There is Sparrow, a composer who adopts a sort of soft pragmatism, giving up on music and stepping as far out of sight as her can. There is the violinist Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin and a woman who reacts to the arbitrary and yet irresistible forces of Maoist revolution with confusion and consternation. And there is the pianist Kai, with whose Vancouver-based daughter the novel begins – and whose accommodations with the regime are more muscular than Sparrow’s, and who therefore spends much of the novel, though he is dead by its opening, atoning for sins of denouncement.

I’m not sure the novel ever drills down to an understanding of music as profound as Barnes; its shapes and effects, its power and its impotence, remain vague and disputable. This is perhaps on purpose – “How could I commit myself to something so powerless?” asks one character [pp. 300-1] – but it gives the novel’s central conflicts a weightless feel. The trio’s love of Western music feels loaded, too – we are invited to sympathise with these characters because they think like us, the Western readers of this Canadian novel. That, too, feels like a shortcut next to the Russianess of Barnes’s Shostakovich. “Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?” we are asked rhetorically at one point [p. 196]; probably not this music, no. No one ever seems to connect with it beyond what it is meant to signify.

That said, in some ways the novel’s music is only another iteration of its presiding theme – time and our efforts to recover that which is past. The novel begins with ten-year-old Marie, the daughter of Kai, when she and her widowed mother are joined in Vancouver by Ai-Ming, a young woman fleeing mainland China after playing a role in (of course) the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming inspires Marie to reconnect with a Chinese past that until then had represented only her lost father; together they explore the ‘Book of Records’, a set of documents compiled by the extended family of Sparrow and Zhuli, which tells the story of how these individuals made their way through China’s turbulent twentieth century. Ai-Ming eventually leaves for the USA, assuming amnesty will come there before Canada, but she leaves behind Marie’s rekindled – and unquenchable – thirst to understand the full picture at which Book of Records can only hint.

In English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind. [pp. 198-9]

The novel is at its best when it seeks to represent Chinese writing and thinking in this way (in the text, this passage is broken up with various characters and ideograms). It’s why its representation of music is so disappointing, and also why the reader is left wanting more, not, despite the book’s girth, less, of this other culture. Marie’s quest for understanding feels incomplete because it is so often in this way a trip only into time, rather than into other heads. This despite the proliferating detail, the endless addition of characters and incidents, which seek to demonstrate that “the past […] was never dead but only reverberated” [p. 14]. Indeed, complexity is the novel’s primary project – it pitches polyphony against the brute insistence of Maoist orthodoxy (“I know that the Party is right […] but even the simplest truths don’t seem like truths at all” [p. 248]) – but I couldn’t escape the sense that a lot happened without very much being translated.

This generic quality explains the novel’s more general “samey-ness”, too. It is beautifully written, and often  philosophically sophisticated, dismissing by example Kai’s fatalistic adoption of the idea of a “zero point […] on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined” [p. 297]. But it also resembles all those other family sagas set over decades: those The Glass Rooms or The Memory of Loves, those The Lowlands or The Garden of Evening (er) Mistses which do much the same thing in much the same way. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterfully controlled novel and I am being unfair to it; but, for me at least, it added up to less than the sum of its multiple moving parts.

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