Fiction: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
This epic traces the legacies of three musicians in China from 1949 up to the present. It is Thien’s third novel and, such is its magnitude, it was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker.
In 1991 Jung Chang’s biography Wild Swans gave the western world an insight into a century of Chinese autocratic brutality. In this book, a new generation will find a masterful literary treatment of Mao Zedong’s tyranny. From the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to Deng Xiaoping’s retirement in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, this soulful tale captures the inner world of the creative mind, that which is most feared by the Communist regime.
The story opens in Vancouver, 1991 and 12-year-old Li-ling is coming to terms with the suicide of her father, Kai. Her grief is interrupted when 19-year old Ai-ming takes refuge from Beijing in her home. The discovery of Kai’s diaries forms the narrative as Ai-Ming translates the Chinese memoirs and unravels their shared past.
Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a brilliant composer, and taught Kai, an enigmatic pianist, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Their trio was completed by Sparrow’s cousin, a violin prodigy, Zhuli. Their love of music, interpretation and performance is banned under Mao’s regime. The third dimension to this exceptional book is its sound. Two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould ripple through the novel. Gould’s innovative 1955 recording is so unusual, I would recommend you play it in the background as you read.
That political tyrants still find that the expression of beauty in music and literature a cause for punishment and extermination, demonstrates the power of individual endeavour. Thien captures that power in all its sadness and joy.
Sunday Indo Living