Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Madeleine Thien.

Thien, Madeleine. Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Knopf Canada. 2016. F;12/16.

I remember friends of my parents in 1950s Vancouver referring in a friendly way to something inscrutable as “Chinese”. This book was hard to understand, but I loved it. Ms Thien is a Vancouver Chinese native who, like me (child of a Czechoslovakian Jew) was born here of immigrant parents and pupated out of the school system blathering Lower-mainland colloquial English and playing hockey. Or grass hockey. Thien tells the terrible story of her parents’ 20th-century China, so lucky Vancouver people can understand and be vicariously changed by it as her parents were changed. It’s a beautifully encompassing vision of Asia and the West.

Her piquant but formal sense of humour crosses cultures: What did the Buddhist say to the pizza-man? Make Me One With Everything. If you allow a cultural shift, affecting metaphors a bit intentionally obscure and more apt to a Chinese ear emerge as just fine. At emotional moments there’s a change in Shanghai physical indoor space: “He thought the walls were creeping nearer to him.” Dramatic movement invites us to find out what this Asian-Canadian writer is up to.

A lot. The most emotionally gripping scene for me had narrator’s uncle Sparrow bicycling at night through Shanghai flooded from a downpour with floating debris of dead chickens and cabbage and a little girl running, just before he stumbles on the humiliation and torture of academic Wu Bei, “He had the numbing fear that the Shanghai that existed only moments ago was gone, it had been washed away and replaced.” I felt fear of change, and of uncontrolled change.

Passing and warped time preoccupy. The serious classical music student Zhuli wished her mother could get rid of memories of the terrifying Cultural Revolution camps. She couldn’t, and neither could her uncle: “In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside, turned against oneself. This is what had become of her son, he had used his anger to tear himself apart.” Sparrow, a lost-generation character, contemplates returning to his brilliant classical composing after 20 years in a factory: “Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him. How could a person counter time itself?” but “A phrase (of his music) filled the room, it seemed to move both backwards and forwards, as if Sparrow wished to rewrite time itself”.

This is a historic novel. So I read up quickly about the Cultural Revolution and subsequence in China. We see partially-obscured an awful immolation of morality feeding on itself. It’s about survival. “…everyone thinks that with one betrayal they can save themselves and everyone they love.” Denouncing others and understanding the violent jargon of the revolution changed people and threw many into the flames.

The novel rewritten by Wen the Dreamer for his girlfriend Swirl is a copy of something old, always in the Cultural Revolution Spirit of duplicity: “How does a copy become more than a copy? Is art the creation of something new and original, or simply the continuous enlargement, or the distillation, of an observation that came before?” In Sparrow’s music, rewriting time itself: “Note by note, (Marie) felt as if (she) was being reconfigured.” Elizabethan and 1980s Shanghai streets did actually exist, but we reexperience Shakespeare and Mao on a computer, right now.

It’s also somehow Chinese, but here in a way that entails western sentiments, that this story is filled with reference, trope, and the theory and metaphysic of music: “… What was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture.” And (relevant to music) mathematics. Marie the narrator becomes a math professor. Numbering of chapters operates as a palindrome involving zero. The mathematical mysticism of JS Bach is of hidden messages in written things. This pretty face speaks in a second unexpected but clear language, but only if you know the code, we’re being shown. But numerologic mysticism and also Chinese spiritualism reaches my western orientation: “She thought to herself, I must make myself fortunate. But what was fortune? She had come to believe it was being exactly the same on the inside as on the outside.” Goodness. I’m put in mind of the Book of Memories. Feeling first, thinking subsequent. Your inside is out when your outside is in.

This book shows me a deeply terrifying China from far away Vancouver, where I (thank God colourblind) am surrounded by Chinese much changed by being here. It’s magnificently inscrutable, made by this lovely author who grew up three miles from my home. She says, “… Believing everything in books is worse than having no books at all.” “There is no way across the river but to feel for the stones.”

Well worth the trouble. 9.4/9.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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