12 March 2018

Do Not Say We Have Nothing / Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is a Canadian writer of Malaysian-Chinese descent who currently lives in Montreal, and it was about time I read one of her works! However, I doubt that I'll be able to do this book justice. It's remarkable for so many reasons... Part of me wants to simply type up the dozen passages I flagged as I read, creating one long poem.

The narrative moves seamlessly in time and space between Vancouver, B.C. and China, from the 1950s all the way to the modern day, following the painful intertwined paths of Chinese history and of two families through generations.

Like many other things in this story, the tale is two-fold. Marie recounts her own journey in the first person, starting with the loss of her father Kai and the sudden arrival in Vancouver of Ai-ming, the daughter of his former music teacher, Sparrow. The two girls grow close, but Ai-ming, who was somehow involved in the recent events in Tienanmen Square and has entered Canada illegally, crosses to the United States, then returns to China to visit her sick mother and vanishes. When she later attempts to find her, Marie, now a mathematician, also learns unsettling details about her father's suicide. The book periodically switches to the past to reveal how tragically the Cultural Revolution and other political unrest transformed the lives of ordinary people, including Marie and Ai-wen's families.

Music suffuses this entire novel, at times receding into the background, often occupying front stage.  It constitutes a character in and of itself in the story. Played, listened to, copied and composed, notes become words to convey the inexpressible. It also drives people to make painful decisions as, faced with the fickle decrees of their government, Kai, Sparrow and his niece Zhuli see their passion for their art take them in very different directions.

Between the thousands of pieces the composer left behind, had Bach ever known silence? Surely never. How was it possible for Bach to feel so much and not to shy away from it? But in my life, Sparrow thought, I think there is a quiet coming now. He felt so certain of it that a sharp pain spread across his chest. A deep silence was about to arrive. How could he live with it?

Intriguingly, the novel is haunted by its shadow image, the Book of Records. Each of its chapters consisting of a separate handwritten door-shaped booklet, this love story by an unidentified author captivates whoever reads it. It's copied, modified and expanded by various characters over the course of the novel, resurfacing in unexpected locations (including among Kai's papers) and serving different purposes, from love token to coded map to secret memorial for fallen comrades.

"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 the universe, but on and on we copy."

If I had to choose one word to sum up Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it would undoubtedly be VARIATIONS. We hear Bach's Goldberg Variations time and time again. As I mentioned before, slight modifications are made to chapters of the Book of Record. Chinese characters can have two very different meanings. These are just a few examples.

There are so many things I might add... but I'll simply end by telling you that I fell in love with Madeleine Thien's language — beautiful, not flowery but precise — as well as her characters; Ai-ming's great-aunt Old Cat the librarian and her grandmother Big Mother Knife are especially memorable. I'll end on these few words of wisdom, taken from one of the latter's letters to Sparrow:

"There is no way across the river but to feel for the stones."

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ****


  1. Encore un ajouté à ma liste de livres à lire. Merci de prendre le temps de partager tes découvertes!


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