Monday, December 12, 2016

Do not say we have nothing, by Madeleine Thien

The novel Do Not Say we Have Nothing, by Vancouver-born Madeleine Thien, garnered immediate acclaim at home and abroad. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction, as well as being shortlisted for the Man Booker and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie medal.

The combination of scenes from modern China reveals the effect of revolution on generations and individuals. Thien paints on a wide canvas, from the early days of the the People's Republic to the 1989 crescendo of protests centred on Tiananmen Square. It began with a few students kneeling on the steps, asking to discuss their written requests. Why did nobody respond? One character says that allowing the students to summon them from the palace would have lost the Party the upper hand.

These fast-spreading protests, and the brutal suppression that ended them, form the finale of a series of incredible disruptions faced by Thien's characters as they try to survive the bizarre and desperate political dangers of late 20th Century China. In the presence of actual historical figures, over the years of coping, they escape and return, are killed, die and commit suicide.

When 1959 brings famine, the future pianist Kai helplessly watches his parents starve. Meanwhile, village cadres block letters to distant family who might otherwise help, and anyone caught trying to leave is arrested and punished. Escaping to Shanghai as the only survivor of his family, Kai sees it as a paradise, "a different planet," where nothing is known of the famine and ruin.

Revolutionary logic beggars belief. Kai justifiably wonders why, when the talented concert pianist Fou Ts'ong "has married the daughter of Yehudi Menuhin," and "plays the piano from London to Berlin," his parents are denounced as "bourgeois elements." The party line, revealed on posters, is clear, "If the father is a hero, so is the son! If the father is a counter-revolutionary, the son must be a son of a bitch!"

The cadres of the revolutionary government seem to believe that their bombastic logic and violent attacks serve "the People." Meanwhile, many die from the brutal abuses of the Red Guards, and most others are cowed into false and ridiculous self-criticisms. Yet one Professor fearlessly speaks out, believing he is politically untouchable because his brothers and wife died the deaths of revolutionary heroes at the hands of the Kuomintang and the Japanese. When overzealous Red Guards denounce him on television, he chastises them for telling shameful lies. His persecutors are shocked into silence by having their own weapons defiantly turned against them, and the screen goes blank.

Meanwhile, the radio announces that a group of counter-revolutionary bourgeois elements have "sneaked into the Party," which so far has seen through only some of them. The threat hangs implicit in the announcement that certain others not yet caught "are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors."

Squeezed against his fellow-musician on a bus, the composer Sparrow reflects on the Party's interdiction against love "that serves the individual before the people" as a "betrayal" of the revolution. In Shanghai, ration lineups wind around corners and disappear "into the horizon." While many starve and suffer, cigarettes, cognac, and White Rabbit candies become "the new currency of the Republic."

The talented violinist Zhuli, a child exploring a field while her parents work, discovers and enters an underground room full of books. With dire consequences. Her parents are taken away to labour and "re-education" camps as counter-revolutionaries. Delivered to her aunt and uncle's house, she falls asleep remembering her mother's tears and how her parents "had been roped together as if they were oxen." As her young mind struggles to come to terms with the banishment of her parents, she wonders if she herself could have "opened the door to the demons who barged in." Later, as she thinks about why she too has been denounced by a fellow student at the Conservatory of Music, she decides that "the very existence of a violin soloist is counter to the times."

An old man reminisces about the fact that when Chairman Mao Tse-Tung launched "his brightest campaign," Comrade Glass Eye asked to have his mother politically rehabilitated, realizing too late the futility of this hope. He even bought gifts for her, knowing that was a bourgeois action. In retrospect, he comments wryly that he "should better have argued that Emperor Hirohito and Chiang Kai-shek deserved a villa in France, paid for by the Communist Party of China."

In a Beijing hutong, while the radios in all the apartments blare out the same government propaganda, two teenage girls come and go carrying buckets of water, and giggle together as they wash dishes in a communal area. While Yiwen encourages Ai-ming to come to Tiananmen Square, Ai-ming's father is summoned to receive a phone call. Since the only telephone is in somebody's living room, no conversation is ever private. Neighbours openly eavesdrop as Kai asks Sparrow to get an exist visa and meet him in Hong Kong, vainly hoping the two can play music together again.

Amid the story's bewildering and tragic upheavals, some moments of humour arise. One Zen joke shared by Yiwen and Zhuli concerns the Buddhist birthday card that says "Not thinking of you." In a remote village, Christian missionaries arrive and set up a shop and school along with their church. Instead of tuition fees, they ask for vegetables, grain, and labour from their new converts. Meanwhile, the country folk observe that their god seems to be "a well-fed baby from Tianjin." Carried "in the the arms of an empress," he is admired as "a cheerful god of prosperity."

Well-researched fiction often provides fascinating details about real history, and I learned much from this book. It was disappointing to learn of  the failure of Canada to grant amnesty to student demonstrators from Tiananmen, although the US did so. Before reading this book, I was unaware that Mao's contemporary, Joseph Stalin, accused the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev of formalism, and had his compositions banned.

I was intrigued by certain details about the Chinese language: "time is vertical," with last year being described as "the year above." Accordingly, the day before yesterday is "in front," while the day after tomorrow is "behind,' and future generations are described as the ones behind. Chinese conveys the image of being propelled into the future while one's back is turned. Indeed, this seems a suitable metaphor for the history of China in the last half of the 20th Century.

Indeed, this book contains wealth besides the profound multi-generational, multi-family story that unspools within it. My mind is still spinning at the thought of the "day-to-day insincerity which was a normal part of everyday life," and with Ai-Ming's hope that by the time of the examinations, "the content of her thoughts would be permissible." My ears are is still ringing with the loud and relentless propaganda from the loudspeakers in the streets. And my heart aches for the many people who were sent to labour camps and denied even "the right to raise their own children."  

The closest I've been to China is pre-1997 Hong Kong, but Thien's book afforded fascinating glimpses of this vast country during past and recent decades. All in all, it was an amazing read. I share the author's faith that one day it will be read, uncensored, in China.

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