After Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is my second book featuring about the dramas of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Overall, I have a diverse experience of literature covering excesses of communist regimes, especially Soviet Union and former communist countries, but no book until now compares to the beautiful writing and delicate approach of Madeleine Thien.
The book, whose title is a verse from the communist Internationale song, is covering the story of three musicians friends from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution until the Tienanmen Square protests. The story is told on different voices and intensities, creating, similarly with musical scores, a unity in diversity of the story. The cruelty of the Cultural Revolution is maybe less known in the West where at the time when intellectuals were tortured and humiliated publicly in China, some students on the streets of Paris were protesting with the Red Book of Mao in their hands.
Thien is using the troubled context of the time to create individual stories and characters, that although do not have more chances than to be the pawns of the historical occurrences are fighting in their own, discrete ways, for their rights to a life. Composer Sparrow, violin prodigy Zhuli and the myterious piano player Kai abandon their dreams of a musical career in a world who is turned over. Music is forbidden, instruments are destroyed, musicians are humiliated in public. There is no place for the works of the spirit and the biggest drama is to give up life. Many heroes of the Gulag literature are able to re-imagine intellectual worlds in their mind silently and patiently waiting the end of their prison time. The anti-heroes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution do follow the political destiny and got transfigurated by the ideological requirements. At the first sight, I was appaled by the apparent resignation of the characters, but in fact, it might be - or look like - fully assuming the circumstances, no dreams attached. It saves from desperation and the suicide of Zhuli means acknowledging the fact that there is no other way to change the reality.
Besides the story telling, there is something else fantastic about this book: the choice of words to describe musical experiences. I am trying for a long time to find the right wording and literary approach to music and in most cases I failed, but this book offers brilliant inspiration.
A recommended reading, to be consumed slowly, embracing the reader in the pleasant of lecture, although the topic is deeply tragic.
Rating: 5 stars