This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.
Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.
This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight. – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.
The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.
I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.
There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”
Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Published: 2016 by Granta Books.
Length: 473 pages
My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a more detailed review