In her marvellous book Do Not Say We Have Nothing (a quote from the Internationale) Madeleine Thein, a Canadian writer of Chinese origin, refers to “this literary resurrection”–and that’s exactly what the book is, an attempt to bring the dead (both the real and the imagined) to life. On other pages she explains further: “She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.”
The book tells the dramatic and tragic history of China from the Japanese invasion to the protests in Tiananmen Square through the story of three characters, all of them musicians. One, a pianist, lost his whole family in the struggle against the Japanese–and so is regarded as a hero of the revolution when the Cultural Revolution comes. He hides his doubts and enjoys a privileged position, meaning that he must go along with much that is degrading. After emigrating to the West he kills himself.
In contrast, another girl, a violinist, is the daughter of “rightists” and so is assumed to be a “rightist” herself. In fact, her parents were imprisoned and almost starved to death because one of their forebears had been to the West and collected and hidden a cache of Western books. I’m not sure how much this idea that you are what your parents were is basic to Chinese culture and how much it was a principle of the Communist party. Knowing that she will be beaten and probably killed, the violinist, despite having written hundreds of pages of self-criticism, kills herself.
The third character, a composer and perhaps the most brilliant of a brilliant three, abandons composing, puts on the uniform of a worker, and works for some 20 years in a radio factory. But he joins the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which leads to his death.
So all the outcomes are tragic, and Thein is exploring her cultural past. The violinist who kills herself was born at about the same time as me, and I thought how different my life would have been if I had been born in China rather than Britain. Would I have been an enthusiast for the Cultural Revolution, a counter-revolutionary, or, most likely, just have kept my head down?
The structure of the book is complex, jumping backwards and forwards in time from a characters in China to a narrator in Canada with Thein’s background who is trying to find out about her father, whom we learn at the very beginning of the book had gone back to Hong Kong and then killed himself. You soon get adjusted to the complicated structure, but the book is a beautiful, inspiring, cruel, insightful read rather than an easy one.
Thein writes more about writing at places in the book:
“We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us—about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in—within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.”
“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”
In addition, the book contains two related themes: music and mathematics. The three main characters are all musicians, and there are many references to music, particularly to the music of Bach and Shostakovich. Bach’s music relates to the mathematic al theme but also is beautiful in its ordered structure, a contrast to the horror of the disorder of the events in China. Shostakovich is important because he too laboured under an oppressive, censoring communist regimen. The narrator is a mathematician and loves the beauty of maths, which against represents order rather than disorder. Thein clearly loves music and maths, and she manages to weave them into the story in a way that works perfectly and doesn’t feel at all gratuitous. I’ve gathered the quotes together below.
She also includes many quotes from Mao and others, together with counterrevolutionary quotes and observations on life. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, the year that The Sellout won. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/bringing-back-slavery-and-segregation-a-novel/ Both books explore recent history.
I read the book because I heard Thein talking on the radio about what she thought of Britain and Brexit. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/01/03/as-other-see-us-canada-a-challenge-to-britain-to-make-the-case-for-maintaining-civil-institutions-and-provide-global-leadership-on-inclusive-politics/ I was struck by the wisdom and clarity of what she said. She is that thing, a public intellectual, that is greatly valued in France and almost despised in Britain.
Don’t Say We Have Nothing is a book well worth reading both as a beautiful insightful book and also for its understanding of China and its recent history. We all need to understand more about China, a world superpower that will soon overtake and replace the US.
Quotes from Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Without the musician, all life would be loneliness.
Bach, she’d always thought, was a coded man, a strange fish, a composer who loved God and devoted himself to the numeric order of the world, but whose heart was fragmented.
I ask myself why your symphonies are never performed, and I think it’s because they make us feel so much, they make us question not only who we are, but who we aim to be.
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 clothes, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her. Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations?
How had this composer [Bach] from the West turned away from the linear and found his voice in the cyclical, in canons and fugues, in what Bach referred to as God’s time and in what the ancient Song and Tang scholars saw as the continual reiterations of the past, the turning of the wheel of history?
Time extended inside Bach, there were repetitions and canons, there were circles and spirals, there were many voices and honest humility as if he knew that reincarnation and loss were inseparable.
Shostakovich was a composer who had finally written about scorn and degradation, who had used harmony against itself, and exposed all the scraping and dissonance inside.
The music became as real as the concrete sidewalks and stout brick walls.
Such fictions were a false world in which her younger sister, if she was not careful, would lose her corporeal being and become only air and longing.
How many words are each of us granted over the course of a lifetime?
We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us—about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in—within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.
I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller.
Believing everything in books is worse than having no books at all.
A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.
She told me, Wen the Dreamer, it’s foolhardy to think that a story ends. There are as many possible endings as beginnings.’”
She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.
In Dunhuang, where Ai-ming stayed with Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, forty thousand manuscripts were recovered in a cave sealed around 1000 AD. In 1900, when an earthquake caused the rocks to split, an abbott, the guardian of the caves, discovered the cache, towers of pages preserved by the dry air of the desert. Mixed in with Chinese prayers were documents in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur, Sogdian, Judeo-Persian, Syriac and Khotanese; a Parthian fragment written in Manichean, a tantric instruction manual in the Uighur alphabet, a past due bill for a camel. Ballads, inventories, circulars and donations. A letter to a husband that reads, “I would rather be a pig’s wife than yours.” Astronomical maps. Board game instructions. A guest’s apology for getting drunk and behaving badly. A poem for a beloved donkey.
The present, Sparrow seemed to say, is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands.
Walter Benjamin’s famous evocation of the angel of history, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”
The uncrossable sea between who he was and who he might have been.
But maybe, he thought, a parent should always have failings, some place into which a child can sink her teeth, because only then can a child come to know herself.
“And yet throughout the world, past and present, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things, have sat and looked and considered them to be matters of course, have not demanded justice for the victims or offered help to them. This is the most appalling, unjust, and unequal thing, the most inexplicable theory under heaven.” Kang Youwei
This is what grief does. It is a confusion, perhaps a poison, that breaks us apart until finally we become something new.
Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him.
“Ah, Lord! Teach us to think that we might die so that we might become wise. Put your house in order, my child, for you will die and no longer remain among the living.”
We are here to learn and not to forget, here to question and not to answer. You are a man of questions. Of all the destinies of the world, this is a heroic one, and yet it carries suffering for it is hard to live with so little certainty.
Yet I understood, even then, that my life was strange, shaped by questions that seemed to have multiple and conflicting answers.
Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false.
What every great mathematician required, an excellent memory and a sense of poetry.
I went on with my life, returning to the world of numbers. Their possibilities, their language and structure, filled me. They were as beloved, alive and universal as music.
I followed the first principle of pure mathematics, the hunger for beauty;
Yet, in the world of numbers, everything felt possible: numbers had no substance and were made entirely of thought.
Chairman Mao says, ‘If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.’”
The Party said that desire, like intellect and skill, was a tool for struggle. But love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself.
Surely we would better serve the People if we were part of the greater world.
Every day we woke up and cursed our leaders, the Revolution and history, and we worshipped life, learning and the future.
She had not heard Debussy for months, not since the composer had been targeted in Wen Hui Bao and the Beijing papers, his music labelled decadent, and the long-dead Frenchman a composer whose “elaborate impressionist cookery” was an insult to the hardships of the poor.
You could not play revolutionary music, truly revolutionary music, if you were a coward in your heart. You could not play if your hands, your wrists, your arms were not free. Every note would be abject, weak, a lie. Every note would reveal you.
How many self-criticisms had she written? A thousand pages, two thousand? Yes, she was selfish and plagued by immoderate desires and yes, her love for music was a weakness.
Chairman Mao said, “To be aware of one’s own mistakes and yet make no attempt to correct them means taking a liberal attitude to oneself. These people talk Marxism but practise liberalism. Yes, this is how the minds of certain people work and they are extremely harmful to the revolutionary collective.”
When I first read his self-criticisms, I glimpsed my father through the many selves he had tried to be; selves abandoned and reinvented, selves that wanted to vanish but couldn’t.
“No more saviours of any kind. We want to be masters of our own country. Democracy, freedom and happiness are the only goals of modernization. Without this fifth modernization, the other four are nothing more than a new-fangled lie.”
“A society that speaks with only one voice is not a stable society.”
“Your father has always been a good man but kindness can be a downfall. It can make you lose perspective. It can make you foolish.”