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The metre of Madeleine Thien’s family and cultural saga of the Cultural Revolution is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is a historical canon orchestrated by a family of gifted musicians and composers who like other persecuted intelligentsia were reconditioned, killed, or displaced by Mao and the Red Guards. Some family members kept a Book of Records that was copied by generations in secret because it revealed the misdeeds of the period. The theory was that the government could not squelch the stories of the dead.

“He would take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records, alongside May Fourth and Da-wei. He would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts. What new movement could the Party proclaim that would bring these dead souls into line? What crackdown could erase something that was hidden in plain sight?”

There is a universality to this that is reflective of ancient Asian belief systems.

“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 life to the act of copying.”

The central characters are Marie (Jiang Li-Liling) whose mother found refuge from China in Canada with her father (Jiang Kai) a gifted composer who betrayed both family and his mentor, friend and lover, Sparrow, to survive the Cultural Revolution. Marie is forgiving towards her father, who abandoned his family to return to China.

“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive that it is what I would tell him.”

Marie’s mother takes in Ai-ming the daughter of Sparrow, who like Shostakovich, composes a symphony that will go unheard, is denounced and reformed by manual labor.  Unlike Shostakovich, who denounced Stravinsky, Sparrow leads a life of quiet despair, the State stifling his music. The  novel’s plot traces the family’s and China’s history both in music and politics through these girls’ search.

The novel is within the genre that Richard Powers writes in. Music is elemental to both plot and theme. In Mr. Powers’ Orfeo, which I previously reviewed, the discordant modern music of Steve Reich and others parallel the principal character’s composition based on DNA, which the government suspects is a form of terrorism. Mr. Powers Gold Bug Variations is based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ms. Thien’s takes the cue from the Goldberg Variations. The novel is like the repetitive canons (fugues or rounds) that mutate with each variation from the base. History is like music; you are condemned to repeat it, but not exactly.

The novel is both hopeful and cautionary. Its explanation of Chinese characters and the radicals that can create different meanings I enjoyed. One character can have different meanings. Some are fascinating. The character for “room” is the same as the one for “universe”.

“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

The last lines of the novel are more realistic.

“Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep. Remember what I say: not everything will pass.”

This novel was on the Man Booker Prize Short List for 2016. While at times I thought it could be a little slow and in need of editing, on the whole it was an interesting. It is a reminder that the “masses” can be mercurial for both good and evil.

 

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