Monday, 2 January 2017

Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien

This painting is in my dining room in Montreal:

I bought it from an art student in the Forbidden City, the ancient Chinese imperial palace in Beijing. It brings back happy memories of my six visits to Beijing in 2003 and 2004 establishing a software development centre for my Irish employer. The Chinese engineers I hired were great - smart, enthusiastic and very sociable. We quickly discovered that we shared a fondness for sitting in the local bar, laughing and chatting about anything and everything over a few drinks, and we spent many an evening, and even a few lunchtimes, doing just that. A bit like the scene in the picture.

I remarked to one of my colleagues, an American woman who had lived in China for more than a decade, that we Irish and Chinese seemed to be very similar in our outlook on life, such as our willingness to find the humour in every situation and build a story around it. She agreed, but added "Don't forget that these are the children and grand-children of people who lived through the cultural revolution. The scars from that time will last for generations".

Madeleine Thien's novel, "Do not say we have nothing" explores those terrible times through the histories of the members of an eccentric family, their experiences, their scars.

This quote from one of the characters could almost be a raison d'etre for the book itself:
“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.”
It's a hugely ambitious novel, digging down to the deepest thoughts and emotions of her characters while at the same time striving to reach a perspective on the turmoil overtaking that vast country. It's not an easy read; at times I was suffocated with dread, at other times broken-hearted, but there were moments of elation too. The story of the family has two axes: classical music and especially Bach's Goldberg variations in this family of gifted musicians, and literature in the form of a mythical and mystical novel, the Book of Records, whose chapters are written and revealed over the course of many years. Music and literature represent truth and beauty, and they will be broken on the wheel of Mao's cultural revolution, as will anyone who continues to believe in them. This is what befalls the family, and the damage echoes down the generation.
“For twenty years, Sparrow had convinced himself that he had safeguarded the most crucial part of his inner life from the Party, the self that composed and understood the world through music. But how could it be? Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him. How could a person counter time itself?” 
The novel succeeds beautifully in my opinion. It's wise too. I filled seven pages with highlighted passages and as I re-read them now I'm brought back in to the novel. Here are a few of them, in no particular order, that give a good sense of what the book is about.
“The first aria of the Goldberg Variations was also its end. Could it be that everything in this life had been written from the beginning?”
“She wondered how many things a person knew that were better forgotten. Her father had looked at the piano as if it were the only solid thing in the room, as if everything and everyone else, including himself, were no more than an illusion, a dream.”
“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”
It's not all bleak - there is hope too!
“In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. ”
“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed.” 
“She squeezed her eyes shut and recited the only words that came to her, the poem at the opening of Chapter 41 of the Book of Records:  ‘Of course, no one knows tomorrow. Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep. Remember what I say: not everything will pass.’ ” 
Oh and there's at least one good joke.
“What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker?” “What?” “Make me one with everything.” 
Badum tish!

What a great book.

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