Madeleine Thien’s sweeping inter-generational novel about the upheavals in the creation of modern China was the fourth book I picked up from the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist (the others being Paul Sellers’s The Sellout, which won that year; Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk; and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project). Although I’ve read one or two shortlisted works in most years of the Prize, this is a total never reached before or, especially, since – the result, I suspect, from living in a place (Perth, at the time) with a bookshop offering the opportunities to browse; buying books off the ‘net is not the same when you can’t pick something up, feel its heft and read some of its prose (I’m a firm believer in the power if not always of the opening line then certainly of the opening paragraph or two).
Thien’s book – a family saga set against the background of actual historical events – certainly has heft: it weighs in at nearly 500 closely-typed pages; and its subject matter (China after the civil war which ended in 1949 with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist-led army) has serious weight. Her title – and indeed her text – is well chosen: it’s drawn from the closing line of the first stanza of the Chinese version of The Internationale, identifying the need for people to rise up together in revolt. The Internationale became the anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic established in 1931 and was also a rallying cry of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, whose events form the climax of this work. The forty years of history from 1949 to 1989 were tumultuous, with China experiencing famine, labour camps, repression and brutality, re-assignment of people to remote areas and unfamiliar work and a continuous state of struggle as the leaders sought to defend and entrench the revolution; although the 30 years since (25 at the time of the book’s publication) have seen much less of all five with leaders opting for a controlled bread and circuses approach, essentially subverting the words of the anthem. Neither, it must be said, did the experience of keeping people in a state of perpetual revolution contribute to the development of an improved society.
The changing nature of words and their subjective duality, forming a continuing quest for meaning in a context in which messages can be either apparent or buried in text, or can change given the different tones used in Chinese language, as well as be manipulated in the service of a powerful regime’s politics, forms much of Thien’s material. The early part of the work sees Li-ling, a young Chinese girl living in Vancouver who also goes by her English language name Marie and who is the novel’s narrator, striving to come to terms with the loss of her father, who died by suicide in Hong Kong in the months after the events at Tiananmen Square. She is simultaneously also dealing with the development of meaning in the Chinese characters of a letter sent to her mother and then in a series of notebook manuscripts. Later, this duality is given space in terms of music – the two families which form the core of the novel are connected by musicianship through study at the Shanghai Conservatory prior to the Cultural Revolution – and the extent to which artists performing another’s material are copying, or reproducing, that work or adding new meaning to it by nature of their own performance; or, for instance, by transcribing musical scores into jianpu, a numbered (mathematical) musical notation system. Given the artistic flair with which the characters forming Chinese language are drawn, the same can be said for writing words and slogans, or copying texts – one of the means by which one of the family branches communicates within and down the generations.
The development of the novel’s plot is triggered by Ai-ming, a girl in her late teenage years, coming as a refugee to stay with Li-ling and her mother subsequent to her involvement in the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ai-ming is the daughter of Sparrow, a composer and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory whose work and parts of whose family history made him, at the time, suspicious in counter-revolutionary terms; while Li-ling’s father, Jiang Kai, was a skilled pianist and accompanist, and one of Sparrow’s students. Thien captures well the repression which Sparrow, whose life is at the centre of the novel, first experiences and then consciously develops as a means of survival in the face of the fear, grief and guilt sparked by the Cultural Revolution; and both him and Kai, who develops a different approach to the very same needs, are drawn hugely sympathetically. Both live for, as well as by, music and the impact of being denied this is different for each, driven by their own familial history and personal motivations while silence is explored not only as a way of dealing with grief but also in the context of the music of which it also forms a whole. The coming together of the daughters is the spark of the plot, leading Li-ling to uncover the layers of mystery in the backgrounds of the two families, but it is the fathers who are at the core of its development; while the fear of the sins of the fathers again being visited on the daughters, in a repetition of family history, tragedy and memory, lies at the core of Thien’s theme.
This is a hugely resonant work of immense depth, perception and feeling. It’s not by any means an easy read: there is a large cast of characters; you need a broad awareness of Chinese history (Thien, born in Vancouver to Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, makes few concessions here); and the savagery of the post-War years, during the period of land reform in the 1950s as well as the Cultural Revolution and the ‘re-education’ programme of intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, is described unstintingly as mobs are encouraged in acts of physical violence and humiliation during ‘struggle sessions’ against those pinned as class enemies. Lest we think this is the product of another time and another country, these days the violence is as likely to be mental as physical and we now call such sessions, when they occur on social media, ‘pile-ons’: Red Guards still exist and they are indeed cross-cultural, even if they don’t these days wear armbands. As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina also shows, people can all too easily be whipped up into hatred and the oppression of others. And, as regards the Uighur Muslims, China itself continues to run re-education camps and to commit human rights abuses.
It must have been an emotionally harrowing novel to write and Thien, who had previously written about the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot, has, by the look of her own rather quaint website (tumblr??), produced nothing coherent in the five years since: a period in which she has, no doubt, been spending time listening, having spoken of the reconfigurative powers of music – in particular, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which appears as a motif throughout ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ – as a way of dealing with the overwhelming sadness of the events about which she writes. Her word choices and metaphors sometimes require thinking and don’t always appear to work at first sight – occasionally, the book takes on the appearance of a translated text which, interestingly, is a theme shared with the work of fellow nominee that year, Graeme Macrae Burnet) – which, for a person born in Canada, is surely deliberate by way of reminding the reader of the gaps which exist in culture and in interpretation of meaning as well as in the fluidity with which the latter can (be) change(d). Thien demonstrates great skill in contrasting the greys of the historical sections of her non-linear narrative with the colours of Li-ling’s childhood in Vancouver and in contemporary China on her visit towards the end of the novel; and in the use of colour to emphasise the different approach and thinking embodied by a student movement concerned not to follow the mistakes of their parents. The historical detail of the work seems not only accurate but also told without embellishment.
The level of input required of the reader in understanding Thien’s apparently abstract expressions does sometimes act as an inhibitor while the rhetorical dialogue between characters (or the author) and the reader, and the figurative language of the text, sometimes palls: this is a problem which authors engaged in historical fiction frequently encounter. If something was real and there is testimony to it, a novel’s value lies in encouraging the reader to step into the shoes of the characters and to debate their actions and their own responses. ‘Saying too much’ might be as much of a problem as saying too little since it can prevent the taking of those steps, but Thien mostly stays on the right side and, while we know of the clear and established links between mathematics and music – Li-ling in her later life is a mathematics professor, complementing the musical skills of her father – her skill as an author lies in emphasising, in contrast to cold mathematics, the poetry of language that music, and musicianship, possesses.
Nevertheless, concentration is required: I was afforded the space to give the novel the attention it both needs and deserves by virtue of a trip to the mainland involving long journeys by train. If you can give it that space, then it will repay you: this is indeed a ‘magisterial’, in the words of Isabel Hilton’s insightful, but rather rushed, review in The Guardian, as well as an interestingly-structured work; and, if the Booker Prize really is about pushing books on to family and friends, as beautifully described by Charlotte Higgins in this morning’s wonderful long read about the Booker in The Guardian, then consider this review as me doing precisely this. ‘A heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation’ the Booker may be – in other words, it’s all about opinions – but, from the four of the six choices on that year’s shortlist that I did get round to, this really ought to have been the victor.