Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is a novel about music and mathematics, silence and loss. Marie and Aiming are each in search of the fathers they never really knew, a loss chillingly reflected in the cover of my Granta edition. The male figure is a phantom, a window into a violent past.
There have been many lost generations since modern China came into being. The dead and the walking dead. Those who remained and those who fled. But for a child of the Cultural Revolution, the geometry of loss remains ever present.
There are lots of triangles in Thien’s novel. Triangles create tension though not necessarily of the romantic kind. Big Mother Knife, her sister Swirl and Swirl’s lover Wen the Dreamer. Ba Lute and his three sons. Mao Zedong, his Red Guard and all things old. The past, the present and the future.
Thien’s novel revolves around three children of the Cultural Revolution: Kai the gifted pianist, Zhuli a violin child prodigy and Sparrow the composer. Music is their life but the world around them belongs to Mao Zedong Thought. Each character chooses a different road out of the madness but the madness follows. Kai has 50 battered notebooks containing drafts of his self-criticisms.
He knew that leaving these self-criticisms behind would endanger others, yet to destroy them was impossible, so he carried them first to Hong Kong and then to Canada. Even here, he would begin new notebooks, denouncing himself and his desires, yet he could not find a way to reinvent himself and change.
To a reader unfamiliar with the evolution of Communist China, Thien’s story may feel relentless. Yet all she’s doing is presenting the circularity of modern Chinese history. War. Purge. Revolution. Purge. Revolution. Purge. There is no respite for the reader from the loudspeakers, the bayonets or the mass hysteria.
For Thien’s characters, there is no past tense. Parents hear the echo of the Cultural Revolution in the student protests at Tiananmen Square. They try to teach their children to hide their thoughts. That the only true form of safety in Communist China is invisibility. The children cannot understand their parents’ fears and march away.
This circular approach to time made it hard for me to enter the story. The role of narrator is handed from one character to the next. A plot line from the present is picked up and then discarded in favor of one from the past. Some of the stories are “real” in that they involve the novel’s characters. But there are also stories within the novel, as in the Book of Records, which itself proves to be mutable.
I felt lost and somewhat annoyed to be wrong-footed so often. Then I finally realized what Thien is doing. She’s written a novel in the form of a fugue. In the musical sense of a theme that plays out and returns in a slightly altered form. In the psychological sense, too, as in a loss of identity.
For the composer Sparrow, squares have determined the direction of his life:
the Tiananmen Square he had walked on in 1950 with Big Mother Knife. The People’s Square in Shanghai. The square courtyards of the laneway house, the sheets of Zhuli’s music, the portraits of Chairman Mao, the bed he shared with Ling, the square record jackets he had burned, the frames of the radios that he built every day.
It’s hard to find hope in this novel and yet it is there. Happiness hides inside a paper flower, a record album or the act of composing a work of music without any chance of hearing it performed. Happiness exists in defiance of tanks. Perhaps true happiness can only be experienced in the presence of sorrow. Just as positive and negative numbers need a zero to define themselves and a shape exists only by virtue of the vacuum inside.
Inside every work of music, there is silence. The lives of Kai, Zhuli and Sparrow each take turn as the melody, variation and counterpoint of Thien’s novel. The silence inside Do Not Say We Have Nothing is this novel’s greatest tragedy and its finest achievement.