In his short poem, Motto, Bertolt Brecht asks: “In the dark times will there also be singing?” Madeleine Thien’s Man Booker shortlisted novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing is indeed about the dark times, or rather gray, when no original, independent thought, except that permitted by the government, is possible. It is about music, its sustaining power, and the succour it can provide in dark times. And then this novel is also about love, its betrayal in the darkest hours, and the memories that remain and those that must be searched for.

In 1990, soon after Marie loses her father, Jiang Kai, she learns from her mother that they will soon have a visitor. Ai-ming arrives at their home in Vancouver after a three-month journey via the northwest desert of China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and finally to Canada. She is older than Marie but they soon become friends.

When Ai-ming’s appeal for amnesty is accepted, she moves to the US and then vanishes soon after. As Marie sets off on her trail, there is nothing of Ai-ming she has but memories and stories from the Book of Records. This is more a series of notebooks, and Marie once found one of them – a chapter of the book – in her father’s possessions. Ai-ming has told her a bit of the rest, from other notebooks that have formed this Book. But a connection with an old, much travelled book, isn’t the only thing that brings the two girls together.

June 1989

This is a year just after the Tiananmen Square protests of May-June 1989, when student and worker demonstrations and strikes sent shockwaves through the government and the Chinese Communist Party. The ripples, as Thien’s book tells us, in a novelistic way, spread through to other provinces as well. The protests were brutally suppressed, the façade of calm that prevailed as Mikhail Gorbhachev met China’s leaders in late May proved far too evanescent, and in early June, tanks and soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rushed in, erasing the crowds. And then the authorities came in, erasing within days any evidence or sign that the protests had ever happened.

When the government decides to erase history and more, people’s memories and their stories, it can go about this task in an efficient, bureaucratic way. Despite this, as seen with authoritarian regimes everywhere, history has a way of emerging, rewriting itself in many forms, in many versions. Even in novel form.

Creating history, erasing memory

The same deterministic ruthless urge that saw people tracked down and punished – as Ai-Mming’s family was after 1989 – had been seen only some two decades earlier during the time of the Cultural Revolution, and even before when the Great Famine in the mid-1950s starved millions in China’s distant provinces. These were times when people were sent into exile, into forced labour for “reeducation”.

Those who perished in the process were simply names that had to wiped off. Entire families were separated, parents from their children, who didn’t see each other for years altogether – all in the name of creating the perfect, just society. Even things loved had to be hidden away under floorboards or held as secrets for so long that they had to be deliberately forgotten, so as to ease suffering. Among these were Ai-ming's father Sparrow’s love for music, his love for his student Jiang Kai and his niece, Zhuli. This effort to forget leaves him spent, unable to finish the symphony he had once begun to compose.

Yet it’s a symphony – Sunshine on the People’s Square – that does survive, makes it to the West, and is finally performed by the Shanghai Conservatory. This happens when Kai’s daughter travels back to China to find out the reasons for her father’s inexplicable death.

The survival of the symphony is a metaphor for much that Thien’s novel is about. Do Not Say We Have Nothing tells the life of ordinary people – two families – torn apart in this great exercise of nation-making in one party’s image, or, rather, in Chairman Mao’s vision. It does this, mingling the detailed and factual with some lyrical magical realism, and in her compelling story, one form blends with the other, page after page.

Thien also uses the interesting method of explaining the Chinese words with calligraphy that blends two words, with two different meanings, creating something new in the process; almost as a way of telling us that any act of creation suffuses the past with the present, and is always something new and different.

Of books within books, and secrets passed on

The Book of Records is somehow incomplete; its many chapters copied by many hands, many people – among them not just Ai-ming but also her aunt Swirl, her father Sparrow, and her uncle Wen the Dreamer, who is banished to Gansu during the Cultural Revolution because he is a reactionary, known for his secret hoard of books of learning from the West. But this isn’t before he has fallen in love with Swirl, the girl who sings in a Shanghai teashop with her elder sister, Big Mother Knife.

Their romance begins at the time Mao Zedong (still not Chairman) is a hero-like figure, who leads his loyal band of followers on the Long March from the south-west to the north-west Shaanxi province, away from the Nationalist encirclement of their camp. The Japanese invasion follows soon after. The story in the Book of Records that Swirl finds in the teashop, and, later, wherever she goes, tells the timeless romance of Da Wei and May Fourth all through this time of immense tribulations. But then this love story seamlessly grows into other ones – such as, for instance, of the love between Wen and Swirl.

But it’s a secret book not just about love but also about hope and steadfastness. Despite the hardships that follow the family, this knowledge and the very presence of the book with its stories sustains them. Just as Sparrow continues to believe for a long time that music would sustain him. That the music of Shostakovich, punished by the Soviet regime for his formalism, of Prokofiev, rehabilitated only to be painfully forgotten and remembered with fake flowers at his death (days after Stalin’s), or of Bach, especially the Goldberg Variations, would not only comfort him, but would live on apart and beside the society and world he lived in. Yet, with his records destroyed as the Cultural Revolution unfolds from the late 1960s onward (till around Mao’s death), his family broken and scattered, Sparrow is forced to reconsider, not just about “truths” the party wants him to accept, but even truths innate to himself, his belief in music and love.

But remembrance does matter and is what counts in the end. As Zhuli’s old friend tells Marie:

…without obsession, there is no life’s work. But where does this attentiveness come from?... Surely it’s what we each carry, in greater and greater quantities as we age, remembrance…The music reminds me of something Zhuli said when we were rehearsing Prokofiev. She said the music made her wonder. Does it alter more to be heard, or to hear? Is it better to have been loved, or to love?

The Importance of remembering

Sparrow remembers his lost music a decade later, just as the students gather for demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. There is a sense of promise and new beginnings, and a need for repentance as he tries to make up for his silences of the past. But silence is far more complex than what is spoken aloud; it harbours long unexpressed love and guilt, just as Kai’s journey to Hong Kong and then to Canada seems an escape from his past and his desperation to save the music he loved. But it seems Thien’s novel is telling us that things cannot be loved in isolation but in their context and entirety. And even when it has been betrayed, there are still its memories. Always the remembering matters.

In her first novel, Certainty, Thien, who lives in Canada, and has Malaysian Chinese parentage, wrote about the war in Southeast Asia, as the Japanese troops invaded the Malay States in the Second World War. The novel recounts, via the story of Gail, a producer of radio documentaries, another story of her father’s lost childhood love, Ani. It is the search for Ani, her father’s story, that causes her much conflict, but this journey into the past, is necessary. It changes Gail too, so that nothing is ever the same.

The Book of Records is like Marie’s search for Ai-ming, something unfinished, it’s a story that continues, even as old chapters are resurrected, found in the strangest, most innocuous of places in China, as it has been copied and recopied several times and then, even online. A story links memories, and different memories go on to make a history that is as important, or even more so, than the officially enforced one.

For all the punishments inflicted on them, because of authority and forced movement, the people in Thien’s novel do not have nothing: Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife, have their stories, that they pass on. Sparrow has his music that, despite everything, he has always hummed under his breath, even as he works in a radio-making factory (part of his rehabilitation). It is music that he has been unable to sing about “in the dark times”, unlike Brecht’s promise, but the music survives him, as it will all of us.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, Granta Books.