Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Madeleine Thien's Masterpiece: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

I am still decompressing and unpacking my thoughts about Do Not Say We Have Nothing, having finished Thien's Booker and Giller shortlisted novel just yesterday. Part of me doesn't want to oversell this but I don't think that is possible. This is one of the most remarkable works of literature I have ever read and it will hopefully go down as a monumental example of great CanLit for years to come.

Do Not Say begins in Vancouver in 1989. Marie's father (Kai) has left the family and shortly afterwards commits suicide in Hong Kong for unknown reasons.  Shortly afterwards, Marie's mother receives a plea from the family of a close friend of Kai's whose daughter (Ai Ming) must flee after the Tienanmen Square protests.

Ai Ming's arrival open's a window into the past lives of Ai Ming and Marie's fathers, as we are taken back to the years after the 1949 revolution. Kai, Sparrow (Ai Ming's father) and Zhuli (Sparrow's cousin) are budding musicians whose lives are filled with passionate feelings for scores and symphonies of all the great composers.

The beginning of the Cultural Revolution at the end of the 1960s quickly tears their lives apart, however, as Mao's Red Guard tried to snuff out Western cultural influences, shutting down conservatories and universities and shaming those whose artistic talents had only recently been praised as remarkable. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli must come to terms with losing such an elemental part of their identity and have to make choices about what their lives will look like without music.

The final quarter of Thien's novel takes us to the eve of the students and worker's protests in 1989. Sparrow has spent the last twenty years making radios, removed from the world of music, but the uprising sparks the long extinguished flame of composing. Sparrow not only feels motivated to write music, he also feels compelled to redeem his failure to stand up against the injustices of the Cultural Revolution, joining the uprising as the tanks role into Beijing, as students sing the Internationale (the title of the book is actually a line from the Chinese version of this revolutionary anthem).

Thien has produced a remarkable book. The writing is complex and poetic, as well as riveting and fast tempoed during the key moments in the plot. The depictions of the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square protests are emotionally exhilarating and devastating.

Most impressive, however, is how endearing the depiction of her many characters is. Thien depicts individuals who are filled with artistic gifts and passion but who become disoriented and weak when their carefully built worlds are disrupted. Thien beautifully conveys the internal struggle the characters go through when their strongest attributes lose their value.

A few more thoughts:

Since music plays such an important role in the story, Thien refers to dozens of different scores and symphonies. Whenever a piece was referenced, I would play it on Spotify, which really helped replicate the ambience of the scenes.

Book awards are a tricky business and although Thien has been shortlisted for the Giller and Booker (and longlisted for the Carnegie Literary Award) there is no guarantee she'll take the final prize. That will be a shame not only because this is truly a monumental novel but also because this is a book people need to get their hands on and winning awards helps a lot doing that.

In ways similar to Rohinton Mistry's epic A Fine Balance, Thien has captured the intimacy of human suffering within the context of grand world events, with the emotional and historical scope that will leave the reader gathering their breath and wondering how writing can be so beautiful and painful.

A must read.

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