Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country. The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan. And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.
All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography. The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China. The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus. Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.
If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre. It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada. The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers.
What engrossed me most was the main characters’ relationship with music–some of the family are Conservatory students, and their inner lives are significantly constituted by their attachments to Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev and others. Glenn Gould records are lovingly described, both as physical entities sometimes buried in the ground to present discovery by censors, but also as arranged mental states, or gateways to ideas and memories. Though this novel is clearly fiction, the passages about Gould, Bach and Beethoven, for me, held so much compressed emotional energy that it made me feel that someone else had listened to them as closely or as often as I had – the narrator intimates that the first English words she learned from her father were “Gould” and “Bach.”
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. – James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
This was a line that kept coming to me as I read – Baldwin’s talking about jazz, which has nothing to do with this novel… But what I slowly realized as I made my way through this pretty long text was that here was an author who could hear it. I’ve read a decent amount about both Glenn Gould’s performances and the underlying compositions (especially of Bach and Beethoven). Even so, the narrator very powerfully recontextualized Beethoven’s 5th “Emperor” Piano Concerto:
An aimless inspection of her schoolbag revealed a copy of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto… the copy was dirty, smudged by pencil marks and eraser dust. Beethoven, she knew, had never intended for this concerto to have so feudal a name as “Emperor.” The name had attached itself long after his death. She followed the solo piano through its ascents and tumbling falls, and into the second movement, a B major dream and sorrow extending like a paper accordion.
If there was indeed an emperor in this concerto, she concluded, he was not a king at all, but a man with ambitions of greatness, an emperor in his own mind, a child who once imagined a different life but had come to see the disconnection between what he aspired to be and what he was capable of being.
This is a stunningly trenchant and visceral reading of 45 minutes of music I’ve experienced enough times to have wondered about how it held together, and here, in the midst of a novel about places, times and ideology so remote from me, I stumble unexpectedly on a elucidation that united my inchoate thoughts and feelings in a way that will allow me to enjoy Beethoven with fresh ears. Which is not to say that this novel does not also contain lessons about family, politics, ideology, time, and death— but in some ways it’s all right there in her Thien’s quick gloss of the “Emperor” Concerto.
Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite.
In a text that is obsessed with the propagandist and violent abuses of language, words becoming their opposites, this line sang out: the sounds, the compositions, the melodies and rhythms themselves retain radical possibility that no Cultural Revolution, no matter how thorough, could ever expunge.