Monthly Archives: December 2016

Devastating Beauty and Tragedy: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

Such devastating beauty in the elegant writing, the intermingling of literature and music, the simple poignancy of human connections.

Such devastating tragedy in the violence of repression, the lost opportunities to create, the rupture of relationships.

And the importance of memory, preserving both the beauty and the tragedy.

One of the first things that struck me in reading Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” was the beautiful writing itself and more specifically her gift for evocative imagery:

  • Their incompatible love made her feel hollow, as if the world had turned out to be flat after all.
  • …it was as if the very air shrouded the buildings in paranoia.
  • …the elongated question mark of his body as he loped down the slippery walks…
  • He leaned toward the child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing…
  • The landscape passed in waves of green and yellow as if the country were an endless unharvested sea.

It’s a gift of vision of both the outer eye and the inner eye. Thien draws into her descriptions concepts and pictures from totally different realms offering to us readers a deeper insight into the character and the scene.

There is much beauty in how music and the written word are reflected as two tributaries of the same stream in this novel. They feed into each other becoming something new, and then part and move off on their own though richer now, only to reconnect in a different way later on: Wen the Dreamer’s “Book of Records,” Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Sparrow’s unfinished “Symphony No. 3,” Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1,” the poetry of Li Bai and Wang Wei inspiring Mahler to write his song symphony “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), and Thien’s literary descriptions of music itself:

  • Yet Zhuli imagined that she could hear her father’s presence in the music just as clearly as if Wen the Dreamer’s name was written on the page.
  • But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothing, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her.

Thien beautifully sketches her characters with a fine brush that projects deeply intimate and yet tortured relationships within families including the narrator Li-ling and her mother, Sparrow and his daughter Ai-ming, Sparrow and his cousin Zhuli, Big Ma and her husband Ba Lute, Big Ma and her sister Swirl, and between lovers and would-be lovers especially Sparrow and Jiang Kai. Her writing is so deft that I was never aware of her developing these relationships. I was inside the story from the first page and living with the characters as they tentatively reached out to the other, faltered, fought, touched fingertips, tore up a loved-one’s manuscript, smiled at a sweet gesture and just as quickly averted their eyes.

And then there is the multi-dimensional tragedy in “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”.

I am a fan of historical fiction such as the novels of Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Viet Thanh Nguyen. I now add Thien to my list. Through the eyes and experiences of her characters, Thien has graphically and gut-wrenchingly recreated the repression, violence, and social upheaval of Mao Zedong’s attempt to reassert his authority over China’s Communist party through what came to be known as the Cultural Revolution from about 1966 to 1976. I am grateful to Thien for bringing alive a dramatic time in history that affected hundreds of millions of people and allowing me to experience it in the first person, so to speak, through her characters. And that experience is devastating with the forced relocations and separations from family, the shaming and torturing of citizens for what was maligned as “decadent” intellectual interests and artistic competence, the suppression of opportunities to create art, the unremitting attempts at brainwashing, the brutal suppression of dissent that Thien describes graphically in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sparrow’s inability to compose for such a long period of time during the Cultural Revolution is the most prominent example of the devastating loss that occurs when art that could have been, isn’t. It is not only that he was essentially forbidden to compose. It was devastating because the repressive environment had silenced the music in his soul. Art was suppressed as well through the closing of the universities and the conservatories and the prohibition to perform works that had not been sanctioned. Sparrow reflects at one point on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:

  • This is a fragment, he thought, of something that once existed but that no longer grows here, like a corn field cut down…you could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn’t the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

The rupturing of relationships is portrayed by Thien in an under-stated style that ramps up the tension and the pathos to an intensity far greater than had she used a vociferous style. The secret long-term connection between Sparrow and Kai is heart-breakingly written:

  • “Sparrow, remember the classics that we memorized? The words are still true. ‘We have no ties of kinship or even provenance, but I am bound to him by ties of sentiment and I share his sorrows and misfortunes.’ We’ve waited our whole lives and now the country is finally opening up. I’ve been thinking…there are ways to begin again. We could leave.”
  • The possibilities before Sparrow, which should have given him joy, instead broke his heart. He was no longer the same person.

Finally, Thien’s novel epitomizes the essentialness of memory and the active commitment to remembering. The “Book of Records,” with its dual literary and musical connotation, forms the core of this process of preserving memory. At the meta level, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” serves the same function…and does so brilliantly.

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For more information on Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” see: http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/259732/do-not-say-we-have-nothing#9780345810427

For more information on my books including my recently-published collection of gay literary short stories entitled “Book Tales” see: www.DavidGHallman.com

 

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