Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a line in the Chinese lyrics of the Internationale, and it’s also the name of Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel, which came out in paperback earlier this year. I’ve read many books set during China’s Cultural Revolution, but this novel stood out because it was set at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where I stayed on my first visit to China back in 1988 and again in 1995.
I was also curious to read this book because Madeleine Thien is a well-known, Montreal-based author who was on faculty at the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA program that was suddenly closed without explanation in 2015. I’m always up for supporting authors with a Hong Kong connection and had wanted to take this book on my next long-haul flight, but couldn’t wait. So I read it last week.
The story takes place from the beginning of the People’s Republic of China until the present day, but most of it is set in the 1950s, 60s, and 80s. Thien includes a family tree, which I found myself referring back to more often than I thought. I could keep the characters straight, but sometimes I didn’t remember which ones were related to which aunt and uncle and vice versa. In this sense, I was glad I had a paperback copy and not the e-book. Referring back to the family tree in the e-book would have been a bit cumbersome.
Sparrow is a child prodigy when it comes to music composition. His cousin, Zhuli, is younger by a decade and a violin virtuoso. The cousins come into contact with Kai, a piano prodigy who is a couple years older than Zhuli, in the early 60s. At this time, Zhuli and Kai are in their teens and Sparrow in his mid-twenties.
About a decade before Zhuli meets Sparrow and Kai, she unwittingly finds her family’s secret underground library. Someone spots her half in the library and half above ground, and everything changes after that. Western books and anything related to pre-1949 China are outlawed in China, so Zhuli’s parents are sent away to hard labor camps up in the cold northwest. Zhuli is sent to her relatives in Shanghai, where she meets her cousin, Sparrow, and her musical career takes off.
Zhuli, Kai, and Sparrow bond through their music, and become very close. But the Cultural Revolution disrupts not only their musical studies, but just about everything else. The story flashes forward to when Kai’s and Sparrow’s daughters meet in Vancouver decades later. I found myself wanting more of this story line, and while the past and present come full circle at the end, I still wished there were more of the daughters’ stories, especially when they were both in Vancouver.
Thien is a beautiful writer and doesn’t foreshadow tragic events, so they seemed to creep up unexpectedly, even when one is aware of the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution and Tianamen. I think this style works very well in this book and doesn’t sensationalize what happened to families in China back then. Music is a central part of this story, as is literature. So this isn’t a novel to race through quickly. Even as I took my time, I found myself missing certain parts, so I think even a week didn’t do it justice.
I did find myself questioning a couple things, but they’re just editing oversights. Thien writes about a character moving at the end of the 1950s, during the end of the Great Leap Forward. But that would have been in the middle of that man-made famine that took up to 45 million lives from 1958 to 1961. There was also a case in which Sparrow and his daughter watch Hu Yaobang’s funeral on television in 1989 Beijing. It’s very possible the family had their own television, but many in China still didn’t at that time, so I think it may have been more authentic if there were a line about how the family got their TV or that it was still very new for families to have their own set. (In 1988, I saw many television sets on street corners, even in Beijing, where people would gather around to watch a show or the news.)
Everything else in the book seemed flawless. Even if you’ve read other novels set during the Cultural Revolution, this one is not to be missed. The questions at the end of the paperback are very thought-provoking, which I was happy to see when I’d finished reading the book. It brought up questions about some of the characters and the structure of the second half of the book, the same things I was wondering at the end.
This is a book I want to read again, not just to fill in some of the parts I may have missed, but also because it was that stirring.