Finally, one title that I feel sure will be on the Shortlist. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a second novel by Madeleine Thien has a background trajectory that covers 20th Century China, from the Cultural Revolution to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. It looks at the affect of the colossal and tragic changes in China during this period of upheaval through the lens of the lives of two musical families.
Told by the daughter of one family, who by a series of connections meets a granddaughter of the other family in Canada, the unfolding drama is told in retrospect, each new link being uncovered like the layers of an onion.
The story hinges on the lives of two sisters, Big Mother Knife and her sister, Swirl and leads through coincidence and relationships from the Great Leap Forward, through the terror and uncertainty of revolution and counter-revolution to the student protests that resulted in the massacre.
Sparrow, Big Mother Knife’s youngest son is a composer, heavily influenced by the Western music of Bach, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, he has completed two symphonies and is embarked on a third. It is through his work at the Shanghai Conservatory that he meets Jiang-Kai, a student musician and also his cousin, Zhuli, a violinist and the daughter of Swirl and Wen the Dreamer.
In the catastrophe that follows Mao Tse Tung’s policies, we learn through the experiences of these various characters the full horror and drama of those times; Jiang-Kai, for example, grew up in a rural village and watched his family starve to death. It is through the benevolent assistance of The Professor, who recognises his musical talent, that he gets to Shanghai Conservatory. His part in the story exemplifies one of the aspects of the time that is so inexplicable, even now – how people got caught up in the denunciations, self-criticism and political mayhem that led to the humiliations of teachers, musicians, politicians and indeed almost anyone in authority even their own benefactors.
Big Mother Knife’s family, on the other hand, were victims of their own success. As landlords they were vilified, humiliated and forced into exile, she ended up in Shanghai, protected somewhat by her husband, a revolutionary guard, Ba Lute. Unaware of the horrors in the rural areas, she goes to visit her sister, but they have been sent to a labour camp for re-education.
Swirl’s husband is Wen the Dreamer, a master calligrapher who is copying the chapters of a Book of Records, the story of two travellers through China. Ultimately, this becomes a way of hiding in plain sight for other people copy the chapters inserting deliberate errors, in the hope that Wen, who has disappeared from the labour camp and escaped somehow, finds these corrupted copies and recognises the clues that have been left in them for him to make his way to safety and his family again.
Much has been written before about various aspects of the destructive wave of terror that swept through China at this time, whole books have been devoted to the terrible famine but somehow in this book, Madeleine Thien has drawn together the multiplicity of wrongs and errors which eventually led to the protests in Tiananmen Square.
It was as part of those protests, that Ai-Ming, the granddaughter of Big Mother Knife has to leave China, and it is to Jiang-Kai’s family that she is sent for protection. Jiang-Kai is no longer alive, but Marie, his daughter and Ai-Ming create a bond of love and friendship that endures years of silence and separation, eventually though, Marie goes to China seeking for the truth about her father and for Ai-Ming who has seemingly disappeared.
This is a book of memory and it is also a love story. It is a reconstruction of country’s past that is fast becoming swallowed up and forgotten; it puts into perspective the appalling, destructive and senseless absurdity of the Cultural Revolution; the hardship and waste of talent, learning and lives is vividly brought into focus on these pages. The meticulous research paints a telling portrait of ordinary lives lived in “interesting” times, a time of extraordinary political upheaval. At the same time, it demonstrates the bond and strength of love, shared through music and experience.
It is indeed, a book of records.