Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes the reader on a journey through two generations where the lives of the main characters are interconnected and bound by their love for music, their struggles during violent times and the meaning they gave and shared through an unfinished book.
Madeleine Thien effectively used this fictitious story to tell us the real and horrifying facts about a not so distant, but nearly forgotten, dark past for China and humanity. She touches on the horrifying effects of The Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961 with its violence and starvation of many. The reader finds themselves experiencing the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 through the lives of the main characters, where the focus is on the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the prosecution of musicians, composers, teachers, writers and artists. She painfully takes us from that part of Chinese history straight into the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and its, uncalled for, violent aftermath.
Needless to say, the book is heavy and the sickening realness of it is disturbing. One cannot but reflect on the potential for evil ingrained within us all. I questioned myself several times throughout my reading of the book if I would have acted differently from the characters. Would I stand up and put myself and my family at risk or would I choose to turn against someone close to me instead? Would I have fled or fought? Would I have turned violent against others if put in a situation of absolute power? I found myself continuously reflecting as I read Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
The novel moves back and forth in time. At first it was very hard for me to follow it, but as I got used to it and became more familiar with the characters, things started to fall into place. Overall, I found the way Thien goes from past to present in the chapters very effective. You can feel that shift in your mind where the past has a different weight from the present. The past feels so heavy and dense and the present brings with it a space to catch your breath and release the tension in your mind, even if for a little bit.
The Chinese words through the novel were also very interesting. I really appreciated her wordplay and the inserting of Chinese words throughout the text. It was quite amusing to see how two completely different words (symbols) could be combined into a new one, creating a completely distinct meaning from both original words. For example, the symbol for light when combined with the symbol for gate turns into ‘space’.
A fascinating aspect of the novel was the concept of having a novel within a novel. The novel within the novel was called Book of Records and it was introduced early on in the book when Marie (Li-Ling) and Ai-ming happen to share a period of their lives together in Canada. It is a handwritten copy with missing chapters and no ending, a book that has been edited and updated with clues and fragments of people’s lives and whereabouts. With the Book of Records, Marie starts to piece together her deceased father’s life and its connection with Ai-ming’s family through Ai-ming’s father Sparrow. Its words and its content mattered a great deal to everyone who happened to come in contact with the Book of Records, along with its story and meaning. It also connects everyone’s lives in some shape or form and it often seems to be what held people together during the hardest times.
The novel is also filled with references to classical composers such as Bach, Prokofiev, Handel and more, as well as The Goldberg Variations composition by Glenn Gould. It is also filled with fragments of poetry and folk songs which enriched the text. It is scary to imagine that there was a period where your passion for “the wrong kind” of music was considered a crime. It is disturbing to imagine living in a time and place where people weren’t allowed access to whatever book or music they wanted. A time where only selected literature was allowed and forced to be consumed. A time where the radio only played a selected amount of songs – music that supported the communist government. It is horrifying to know that a place like that existed and that it can easily be created again.
During that time freedom did not exist. People’s lives were completely controlled and dictated by the government. There wasn’t just censorship of freedom of speech, there was censorship on all imaginable aspects of people’s existence. They were denied all decision-making and they were even denied the right to raise their own children. The places where people worked and lived were assigned by the government. You could be made a criminal or have your criminal record revoked depending on what the situation was like at a particular time. You could be “safe” today and staying low-key, but suddenly tomorrow you would be charged for counter-revolutionary crimes.
It is worrying to understand how propaganda, when feeding into a real and existing resentment, can be used as the means to target and eliminate the group chosen to hold absolute blame for the existing situation. Where hope, fear, obsession, sense of duty, biased moral values, blinded loyalty and unquestionable beliefs can become very powerful motivators, able to make a common person like you and I do horrible things. This novel pushed me to reflect further on that and strengthen my belief that we all have the same potential for evil as we have for good. Given the chance we will have to choose which potential to feed into. Those decades related in the pages of the novel were very hard to digest and accept as a part of humankind’s past. And looking at the current political turmoil we face, I wonder if we have learned and understood enough from our history and human potential.
An aspect of the book that took me quite by surprise was the amount of existential reflections it contains. I found them very effective and realistic. They made me reflect not only on the world around me but more so on my place and responsibility towards the outcome I want to see in this world. It made me wonder what kind of person would I have become if I was trapped in the same situation as the characters of this novel and what kind of person I am able to become right now in my current life. It made me reflect on the many selves one can become and the many ways life can play out.
The book shows characters following their hearts to find their lost loved ones with very scarce resources. Characters letting their guilt consume them to a point where they live a detached existence. Characters whose fears of making a mistake paralyses them. Characters whose fears push them towards committing violence. All of them relatable, all of them common human expressions and potential. It also made me consider that the freedom and resources most of us have access to are very little used to our favour and are often taken for granted with our excuses, fears, self-disbelief, assumptions, conditioning and projections getting the best out of us. It got me wondering about the choices we are making and the power we are willing to give to others and to the situation we were in, or find ourselves in.
The reality of our past contained in this novel reminded me of how blessed most of us are in this time and age to have the freedom we do to speak our minds, to educate ourselves, to read what we choose to read, to be with who we fall in love or choose to be with and to become what we choose to become.