“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.

Translated From The Italian

I’ve written (albeit briefly) about translation before, but it struck me that in discussing The Prague Cemetery last week I didn’t mention the name of Richard Dixon. Peter Conrad’s review of the English edition of the novel, which I bounced off sceptically in that post, is criticised in the comments for committing precisely the same omission, and I duly hang my head in shame – not least because, of course, Eco has written himself about the problems of translation.

In a piece from a twenty-year-old edition of the Guardian Weekly, Eco (mediated, of course, through a translation) discussed the relative merits of the source- and target-oriented method of rendering a text from one language to another. It feels to me that Eco supports the target-oriented approach: though he defends the retention, for instance, of repetition in Homer, he advocates the retention of effect over sense in Tolstoy. Similarly, he provides a lovely example of a moment in Foucault’s Pendulum strictly mis-translated in English in order to retain the passage’s instantly recognisable allusiveness. Eco is not being entirely consistent: The Iliad, he argues, is culturally separate enough from us that we should respect what we might today perceive as its formal limitations; yet a modern Chinese reader must not be expected to know Russian aristocrats of the Napoleonic era spoke French, and instead have the first chapter of War & Peace translated anew into some fittingly familiar-but-alien script.

Nevertheless, this is a position held, too, by Julian Barnes in my previous post about translation. He found Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary too close to the original French – a shame, then, that he didn’t subsequently review Adam Thorpe’s translation, which followed hot on Davis’s heels and sought not to ape the French so much as mirror the disruptive, radical effect it might have had in 1856, but – ahem – did so by sticking to period language (“A good translation holds faith with the original’s aura,” wrote Thorpe in the Guardian, orienting around a target).

I recently reviewed Lemistry, a celebration of the famously under-translated Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, for Foundation Vector. One of my favourite bits of what is a rather neat little book is, fittingly, the translator’s note:

“The relationship with a book seems straightforward, when you reside in your favourite location, be it a chair, a train, a bed or up a tree, you and the author seem to have an intimacy, a direct relationship which allows the alchemy of conjuring a static fiction into something that swims in the mind. However we are also there, in fact the words and the language of your homeland are ours. We are part of the futurological entropy of Lem’s ideas, as is his dissemination into other forms and materials. […] We are the entities that have taken those ideas structured as words, from their native language to that of yours, we have made them into films, we have constructed new worlds from them using the everyday that surrounds our own.”

All of which is simply by way of apologising to Richard Dixon, of whose orientation, whether focused on source or target, I am entirely ignorant. Given how embedded The Prague Cemetery seems to be in particularly Italian notions of the nineteenth-century, one might imagine Dixon attempted to spark the English-speaking Victorian imagination; but, equally, The Prague Cemetery is a forbidding novel which does not find much space for Anglophone culture. If Dixon has made remarks somewhere, I’ve missed them and would appreciate a link or a reference.

“Some Achievements and Some Disappointments”: Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

Julian Barnes has long been dogged by accusations of detachment. There are many who find his prose style dry, his novels cold fish, more intellectual exercises than genuine attempts to imagine oneself into the predicaments of another. Mostly obviously, his enthusiasm for the essay form gives some weight to this characterisation of his work: from Flaubert’s Parrot to A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, his novels have often eschewed fiction for fabulation – the weaving of facts into a kind of narrative-as-argument. Many of his books which do not follow this rubric, such as England, England or Before She Met Me, are broad kinds of farce; even Arthur & George, one of Barnes’s most successful and most traditional novels, has something of the critic about it.

Thus, then, Leo Robson’s stinging review of Barnes’s latest novella, The Sense of an Ending, in the New Statesman:

Yet you don’t need Josipovici’s allegiances and antipathies to feel enervated by Barnes’s “smartness”. Like Amis, especially in The Information and The Pregnant Widow, and Craig Raine in Heartbreak, Barnes possesses not just an ironic but an almost post-novelistic sensibility. I say almost: theirs is a form of scepticism about artifice and stories – but with a strain of sentimentalism, a taste for the plaintive and dewy-eyed when it comes to sex, fading vitality and death. But knowingness predominates.

This is not a criticism you can really argue with on point of fact (though there’s a subjectivism to that word ‘sentimental’) – Barnes’s postmodernism has indeed always driven him to undermine the very form he has adopted. Certainly, The Sense of an Ending does not help the case for the defense: despite its slightness, it is repetitive and familiar, and though its lines are very finely drawn they are for the most part rather functional. It opens with four boys discussing history, philosophy and literature with their sixth form masters – “there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event – even the outbreak of the First World War, for example – is that ‘something happened'” [pg. 5] – and, either by accident or design, the reader never quite shakes the feeling of being part of the class.

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character reassembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.” [pg. 103]

The book’s narrator, Tony Webster, is a dyspeptic, contented, yet somehow restless,  retired arts administrator. Years ago, in his first years of university, he enjoyed an intense but frustrating relationship with Veronica, a woman he couldn’t understand; though settled gratefully into his 60s, with a single divorce and daughter behind him, he finds himself turning that time over in his head when Veronica’s mother leaves him in her will the diary of one of those four schoolboys with whom he begins his narrative. Adrian Finn went to Oxbridge, was fiercely clever, and ended up with Veronica following her break-up with Tony. Our narrator has placed Adrian on a kind of pedestal in the story of his own life – dead young, he stands for all the undisappointed potential and aspiration of one’s early adulthood. The novel is the tale of the complication of that reading.

Unfortunately, Tony himself – in many ways a quintessential Barnesian protagonist, all mordant wit and awareness of his own limitations – is also prone to long explications like the one above. The traditional strength of the novella – its tautness and brevity – here seeks to work against Barnes’s purpose somewhat: so schematic is Tony’s thinking, and so fleeting every sentence, that the colour and detail of the story (that is, its complications) are lost in the rush towards the novel’s climax – or perhaps the argument’s QED. Tony is for sure an unreliable narrator, meaning his conclusions can for the realy only be provisional; but there is still something dry about the novel’s discipline.

Barnes has in recent years offered himself as a Home Counties Roth, meditating satirically on death and mortality. Roth’s late masterpiece, Everyman, is about the same length as The Sense of an Ending, and yet is somehow far more supple. I would defend Barnes’s oeuvre – for me, humorous, swaggering, careful and wise – against any Leo Robson of this world; his latest effort, however, is very nearly as guilty as charged. It is impressively, carefully, constructed – but perhaps a little too so. It has the usual jokes and good sense of Barnes, but seems insufficiently layered to make it beyond the Booker’s longlist.

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

The short version: life continues to get in the way. The longer version: I’m not for want of things to write about, but the time since I experienced them flies by so fast it feels odd to return – blogging is, after all, meant to be an immediate medium. Mostly, this smacks of falling out of the habit. I need to get back into the saddle.

In the meantime, check the sidebars for new activity: Julian Barnes’s latest collection of short stories, Pulse, is a lovely, ruminative thing; A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s new record should find its way into everyone’s collection; and A Single Man, which we caught up on recently, deserved far more attention than it got at the time.

Finally, a review of mine just recently went up at Strange Horizons. Check out Zoran Živković, you’ll like his work.

The ‘Mouthfeel’ of Translation

"I'm sorry, that number is ex-directory. What might this tell us about the incompleteness of history, and the impossibility of objective truth?"

This post is probably just as well suited to a tweet, so I invite you to parse any excessive verbiage as shameless breakage of the 140 character limit, and a sort of poor justification for blogging. Excellent.

I’d probably read Julian Barnes’s transcription of the phonebook, so his essay in the most recent LRB was a pleasure. Ostensibly a review of Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary (he doesn’t like it), it’s also a lovely expression of the problems of translation. Coming from a noted Francophile, Barnes’s objection to Davis is perhaps surprising – it sticks too closely to the original French, rendering Flaubert’s supple prose stiff and clumsy in English. Go read. The review, that is, but if you haven’t alsoread the novel already – where have you been?

Arthur & George @ The Birmingham Rep

Arthur & George has now ended its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, so these remarks can’t act as a recommendation you see the play – although hopefully it will go elsewhere, because you really should. It is, of course, an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s superlative novel – perhaps his finest, and certainly his most humane – and David Edgar has done wonders transforming an inward-looking novel about identity into an engaging murder mystery about English society. The added emphasis the play puts on the questions surrounding the crimes at Great Wyrley provides it with a strong forward momentum, and an added focus on the accused – the eponymous George Edalji, the son of a Parsi vicar – provides a welcome balance to the novel’s defining portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle does remain, inevitably, the play’s central figure, however, and Adrian Lukis was superb in the role: domineering yet vulnerable, he had a child’s enthusiasm for cocking a snook to authority, but the newly moneyed’s fear of rejection and under-achievement. Chris Nayak as George suffered from a part defined primarily by awkwardness and a sort of strained dignity; the moments in which he is called upon to act the role of George’s prosecutor, however, reveal that the stilted element of his performance was part of the direction rather than a limitation of his art. Nevertheless, it’s a choice at odds with the play’s decision to round out George’s role. Since the play begins and ends with him, and is essentially a story about an Asian Briton finding his voice, it is a shame that Edgar so faithfully retains Barnes’s conceit of the strait-jacketed personality.

Nayak’s portrayal works in the context of the production, however, which is dynamic not just thanks to that rollicking crime narrative, but thanks to a revolving central portion of the stage which helps facilitate the many scene changes of the play. Arthur & George could have been a static affair, but in fact it includes shifts from drawing room to pub, hotel lobby to country field, which are wholly convincing and entertaining to boot. Not only that, but the manner in which Edgar’s canny script – in which scenes in disparate locations take place on stage simultaneously, and flashbacks exist concurrently with flashforwards – is presented on stage without confusion. The supporting cast were also uniformly excellent, and – crucially for any revival – this was not least in part because each character’s role is written with sensitivity and keen observation.

Thus matching its (admittedly less complete) treatment precisely for the different demands of the medium, Arthur & George is no retread of the novel – for instance, it changes the final scene of the book entirely, better to suit its own ends – and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was thoughtful, aware and deceptively complex entertainment. Very nicely done indeed.

Weekend Links

We’ve been quiet because busy, and so we mostly spent the weekend doing nothing whatsoever. A few things which pierced the fug:

Chinua Achebe in the Guardian, on Nigeria.

Julian Barnes, also in the Guardian, with a slight but sly short story.

Charles Blattberg at his blog on why everything is the fault of Sherlock Holmes.

And, only about a year after it was actually published, Erin Cashier’s rather fun story, The Hangman.

Otherwise, we mostly watched Three Men and a Little Lady. Yes, we did. Steve Guttenberg has promised us a sequel.