Do Not Say We Have Nothing ~ by Madeleine Thein

Another 2017 Man Booker short-listed novel.  Yes,  I’m a fan – I read all the short-listers every year  and a few of the long-listers, too.   I probably ought to make a category here.

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing the author has shown us the lives of Chinese musicians  during the era of Mao Zedong.   The story opens with a mother,  her daughter and a new Chinese immigrant in Vancouver discovering their common pasts –  their fathers were very close friends in China during the Cultural Revolution.  The daughter in the opening story has been wanting information on her father, an immigrant from those times,  who returned to China during the Tiananmen Square uprising  of 1989.  He never got back.  The book explores the lives of the three musicians,  Sparrow,  his niece Zhuli and Kia who is a good friend.   There are also well interwoven background stories on the family of  Sparrow and Zhuli – it’s the story of the life and socially tumultuous times of  three generations.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thein
2017 / 474 pages (Kindle)
read by Angela Lin – 20h 11m
rating 9  –  / contemporary fiction
(both read and listened)

In 1989 or thereabouts,  the 10-year old Marie and her mother live alone in Vancouver since Kai, Marie’s father, Ma’s husband,  Jiang Kai, left to return to China a few months prior,  and then died there, an apparent suicide.

One day a young woman named Ai-Ming comes to stay with them as she is newly immigrated from Red China and her mother asked Marie’s mother for assistance.  Their fathers were close friends and musicians.  Ai’s father’s name was Sparrow and he and Marie’s father had been so close in China that Ma says Ai-Ming is “family.”

Slowly,  over the years they live together Marie and Ai-Ming piece Sparrow’s family history together.  Marie wants to know why her father left them and why he died.    She doesn’t get quite that far for her efforts at this point,  but she does get a lot of information.

Ma has a collection of 32 notebooks which were found in Kai’s belongings.   The “Book of Records”  is a kind of novel which was handed down from one family member to another while being hidden from the authorities.  There are a number of hand-written notes in it as well as other material.  Although it was originally a commercial novel, as it is copied and recopied it  becomes the history of the individuals who held it and read it and wrote more.   There seems to be a kind of code involved.

The main characters of what is really historical fiction are Sparrow (the son of Mother Knife and Ba Lute) ,  Kai (the son of peasants)  and Zhuli (the daughter of Swirl and Wen but Sparrow’s niece).   The three friends were exceptionally talented musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s.  Kai is a pianist,  Sparrow a composer and Zhuli a violinist. But,   Kai is a Red Guard,  Zhuli a counter-revolutionary and Sparrow tries to be neutral – to hide.  The history almost overwhelms the plot but it all works together –  these were “interesting times” as Confucius is said to have used in a curse.

“The novel is a meditation and a journey through art and revolution, as well as artistic and revolutionary violence. ”  –   Thein in

The inner story(ies)  takes place between the 1940s WWII and 1989’s Tiananmen Square difficulties.    There was a lot of history in China between those years, many thousands,  probably millions, of people died or were displaced,  transferred,  or reassigned.  Sparrow’s family shows the results of this.

Sparrow  is the main character in many of  the inner stories,  but each family member has his/her own sections.  This is where the “Book of Records” comes in.   It contains stories which the main characters identify with and add to.

There is an overarching motif or theme in the music which binds the characters Swallow and Kai,  Bach’s Goldberg Variations (specifically, Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 versions) serve as a motif throughout the novel,  but Bach and Shostakovich and Prokofiev are prominent.  Although Mao loved western music,  these composers were banned during the Cultural Revolution.  Nevertheless,  our three musicians found the music liberating and inspiring and it was the music which truly united them.

“In the novel, silence and sound are not binaries; rather they form part of a continuous, complex fabric of life, politics, music and self.”    Thein in:

Meanwhile,  Marie, in Vancouver,  grows up to be a mathematician who sees codes   everywhere.   The book has the feel of a symphony with many instruments working together toward a unified piece.   And there are points in the frame story of Marie and Ai-Ming  vs counterpoints in the inner story of Sparrow and his family.   Also there is the tempo,  the family themes supporting one another, interweaving,   etc.  – Even the structure and metaphors  (“… he felt like an old piano that couldn’t be tuned”)  follow the the idea of music in many ways – down to the last chapter being called,  “Coda.”

Then comes Part Zero which starts with Marie,  the now mathematician daughter of Kai and Ma, visiting China. This comes at about 2/3 of the way through the novel.

Either Thien is a true literary genius or I was in the right mood about half-way through the book!  Part 1 is a bit boring,  distant,  not quite real –  but that’s the way characters in a diary might seem.   When Part 2 starts the characters and story come alive.   Both Part 1 and Part 2  frame stories are first person with Marie being the narrator.  The  interior stories are told in 3rd person,  as though they were a part of the “Book of Records” perhaps – or at least they take off from that point.   Anyway,  the narrative gains a real immediacy from the start of  Part 2 on.

 “When and if we can, we speak (make music, write, engage, commit) and when we cannot, we listen. It was listening, not speaking, that saved me.”

I only Googled a bit but from what I gathered the information included in all the history is factual – the Hundred Flowers Campaign for instance,  or the blind musician Ah-Bing and the Military Commander Zhao Ziyang.  –  this is as good as it gets in historical fiction (imo, although Tiananmen Square is not quite yet history,  for Thien (born 1974)  to examine the Cultural Revolution is.

Many photos here as well as the music:

(It’s so reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite novels,  The Goldbug Chronicles by Richard Powers  – yet it’s not in any way derivative –  nothing –   –  the only connections are Glenn Gould and music in general – and the beauty of the writing.)

This entry was posted in 2023 Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Do Not Say We Have Nothing ~ by Madeleine Thein

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I must read this soon…


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