Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing – A multi-faceted novel exploring issues of the past, present, and future

Madeleine Thien is no stranger to awards. Across the total five books that she has written, she has accrued six awards and has been shortlisted ten times in total. This book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, tackles the complex issue of communist China. Thien is no stranger to writing about complex issues as well – her second novel, entitled Dogs on the Perimeter, was about the aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide. From reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it is clear that Nobel Prize Laureate Alice Munro was right when describing Thien’s first novel as the debut of a ‘splendid writer’.

From the blurb of Thien’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel, you would not be able to predict how emotionally heart wrenching this book is. It describes the story as ‘a history of revolutionary idealism’, and from that ideas are evoked of far flung tales often featured in historical novels, that seem to lack a sense of personality – as a reader, you don’t get the feeling that they were there, more that the story is being reported by a far-off observer. However, the personality in this novel is so prevalent that the story created seems so very real. Due to the book’s historical nature, and the use of multiple time streams, you know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. Amazingly, Thien still has the ability to surprise and keep you guessing from page to page. It is in this that the book is differentiated from a historical novel – it is not about the historical events, but rather about characters that just happen to be a part of them.

The story centres around a young girl called Li-ling, whose English name is Marie, living in Canada with her mother. The opening of the novel informs you of Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, committing suicide, in a way that shocks both due to its placement and the detached tone in which it is reported. Shortly after this, Marie’s mother receives a letter saying that the daughter of one of her husband’s friends from his life in China is in need of refuge, away from the prying, ever present eyes of the Chinese government. When the girl, Ai-ming, arrives, she carries with her the key to Marie’s father’s past. Through the stories that Ai-ming tells her, the Book of Records that her mother gives her, and her own travels to China, Marie pieces together the story of her father and his friends, Sparrow and Zhuli.

Although Marie is the character that provides the overarching narrative to the story, it is the story of these three friends that as a reader you are more interested in. Sparrow is the son of a highly praised officer of the People’s Liberation Army, which led the Chinese Communist Party to victory in the Chinese Civil War; Zhuli is his cousin, ten years younger than him, who was sent to live with his family when her parents were taken to a re-education camp. Kai is the only member of his family who survived the collectivisation that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, and he lives with his uncle in Shanghai. The three of them are musicians of the Shanghai Conservatory. Throughout the novel, their friendship and relationships develop, as well as their roles as musicians in a communist society. As the party turns away from music, denouncing it as reflective of the bourgeoisie, taking their instruments, their music, their freedom of expression, and destroying it all, the three friends find their friendships tested, whilst they battle with their own identities and how they fit into this way of life.

One of the amazing things about this novel is the way that Thien ties the true events of the past in with the narrative. Ai-ming is fleeing China after the protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre, and the novel’s climax centres around these same events. The land reforms that tear Zhuli’s family apart were seen across China during the Great Leap Forward, often sparked by findings such as that of the people of their village – they find that the basement was left standing after they knocked down the house of Zhuli’s father, Wen, and find various forbidden items, including books and musical instruments, within it. What happens to He Luting when his affiliation to Debussy comes under criticism as the Chairman of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was so horrific that the Conservatory as it stands today is called the He Luting Conservatory of Music – although the latter fact is unmentioned within the novel, the denouncing of He Luting is the beginning of the trouble for Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai as musicians. When Marie goes to China to attempt to find Ai-ming, who returns to China shortly after she gets her application as a refugee in the United States of America approved, Marie speaks of the issues of finding her due to ‘the Great Firewall’. None of these associations seem contrived, either, the plot flows naturally through them whilst highlighting the difficulties of life in China under the Chinese Communist Party, both in the past and in the present day.

These characters provide fantastic representations of the effects of living in communist China, and Thien furthers this through the conversations that take place throughout the novel between all of the focal characters and the people that they all meet on their journeys. The impersonal and almost robotic way they parrot their ‘Long live Chairman Mao’s and such, before any proper conversation takes place, contrasts so violently to the normal way in which the central characters casually talk to each other that the depersonalisation created by the revolution is painstakingly clear. No-one is allowed the individuality of talking person to person, they instead have to become simple carbon copies, all part of a machine, and all constantly reminded of their great leader and how fantastic their life is.

Whilst being a novel centring on demonstrating the history of communist China, Thien also explores the universal themes of love, loss, friendship, and identity. As well that, she covers issues very relevant in today’s society such as censorship and the plight of refugees. There was a recent report in the Economist about how the Chinese government has taken the internet – expected by many people from other countries to be a democratising force in China – and twisted it to their advantage. With the Great Firewall, as mentioned by Marie when she is attempting to find Ai-ming in China, the government now has the ability to block just certain pages on websites that contain keywords that they wish to restrict, and even prevent texts containing similar keywords from ever reaching their intended recipient. They can just delete them. And yet, this is not an issue that is talked about enough in our Western-centric society. Should we, so often vocal about the necessity of freedom of speech when it directly affects us, neglect to talk about the ongoing issue in China – and other countries across the globe – just because we don’t see it? Thien provides a clear platform for these issues within her book, bringing them to a Western audience.

Thien also masterfully highlights generational differences and similarities through the spanning of the story across multiple generations – though it is Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai that we mainly hear about when the narrative switches to the past, it is Zhuli’s parents, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, that we are first introduced to. There is no fear when they first fall in love and get married, but as the revolution continues, Wen is stripped of his land as a wealthy landowner, the rest of his family beaten to death in front of him, and him, Swirl, and Zhuli are reduced to living in a hut and farming. Zhuli is not even allowed to attend school in the village due to Wen’s previous status. After Swirl comes back from the re-education camp, to live with Big Mother Knife – her sister, and Sparrow’s mother, who Zhuli is also living with – she is changed, fearful and distressed by her experiences. Some of the discourse that she and Zhuli have clearly demonstrates the generational differences created by their vastly different experiences of the world. Yet Big Mother Knife and Swirl go off to find Wen the Dreamer, after hearing news that he is still alive due to a letter he gave to Sparrow, just like Sparrow and Kai do when they follow Wen’s advice to locate Comrade Glass Eye. The generations are divided but also united by their experiences of hardship and their search for answers.

Such a personal touch in the novel can only be created through the personal links that Thien has to the topic and her characters. Although Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not autobiographical, Thien does share aspects of herself with the character of Marie. For example, Thien has also lost a parent, and after she lost her mother in 2002, she went travelling, visiting China alone, partially to connect with her heritage. She and her mother had planned this trip together before she died. She said herself that her father ‘instilled an idea of China’ in her that ‘exerts a hold on’ her. Aspects of her life have also clearly influenced the novel in other ways. The issue of censorship of art is very close to her own heart, as she was a lecturer of Creative Writing at Hong Kong University from 2010 to 2015, before the program was abruptly shut down during Hong Kong’s crackdown on free speech. She wrote an article for the Guardian on this matter, in which she states that the move is ‘plainly intended to limit free expression’, and also likens the protests in Hong Kong prior to the clamp down to the Tiananmen Square protests, which obviously play a key part in her novel.

Moral, social, and political implications aside, this is also a beautifully written book. With the majority of the narrative centred around three musicians, music features heavily throughout. The way that the music is written in this book means that you can almost hear it, perhaps because of the vivid descriptions of not only the notes being played, but also the passion behind them. I had never consciously listened to Prokofiev before, but when Zhuli is playing her violin, ‘following Prokofiev up high porcelain staircases’ with the utmost concentration as ‘the notes chipped into one another’, every note serving to ‘elaborate this unending melody’, it was as if she were playing the violin right beside my ear. Whilst in a literal sense, the music cannot be heard, the music can be understood, and that is all that matters in understanding these characters.

The only complaint that has been made about this book is the dappling of Chinese words throughout. But these words serve to highlight the cultural differences and multiculturalism of the world. Marie has Chinese heritage, and to ignore that in favour of just accepting her Canadian side when her story is so interlinked with China’s history would be unnatural. The Chinese words extend the personal link that Marie has to this world that she is delving into – she is not someone looking for reports of the facts, she is searching for the answers that she so desperately desires about her father’s past.

Given the beautiful way this book is written, and the many things it brings to light and makes you consider, it is abundantly clear why it has received the critical praise that it has. Thien is definitely more than worthy of such accolades.

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