This Book is a part of Man Booker 2016 Shortlist Read Series

Madeliene Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is her debut novel at Man Booker Prize. The book takes you through the lives of two musical families, or rather two families that have music in their hearts but only one of them fulfills it. The story that is spread over from the 1940s until the present day is interwoven with the forgettable undeniable history of China with Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Protests.

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Book #: 38

Title: Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien

Pages: 463

The book starts off with an intriguing first line:

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.

 449 pages later:

“He’s already dead,” she said at last. “What more do you want from him? I gave my life to the Party. I gave my life. What more do you want from me? I have nothing more to say”

What happens between is something musical, lyrical and magical. Madeliene Thien’s story of “Sparrow” with the backdrop of revolution, music, story, immigration and redemption is probably one of best books that I have read this year. I might not be exaggerating any book to say that this is the closest anyone got to the genius of “One Hundred of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

Ai-Ming, daughter of an extremely genius but unsuccessful musician who was lost during the troubled times of Chinese communist uprising, arrives in Canada to stay with the family of her father’s student. The story of every immigrant to Canada and the United States is summarized with the life of Ai-Ming, who wants to be educated and settle down in the University under the New Amnesty Programme.

The story starts off with Ai-Ming coming to live with Jian Ji-Ling (Marie) and her mother. As the book unfolds you go deeper and deeper in times to the days of the 1940s followed by Mao Zadong’s regime and to recover from the troubled re-education camps where any landlord is overthrown of his land and left to survive in the desert, if not killed on the streets.

What pushes the story forward (in “writing” terminology, what motivates them)?

Firstly, “The Book of Records” is the story of May Fourth and Da-Wei traversed through the short stories of Big Mother Knife narrated to us by Ai-Ming followed by multiple different versions of chapters updated by Wen, the Dreamer and Swirl, the Aunt and briefly organized by Zhuli, the Cousin and latest reinstated by Jian Ji-Ling, daughter of a student.

“I assumed as the Big Mother Knife’s stories finished, life would go back and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer. And, I got shorter and shorter.”

As the accessibility to the Book of Records ran the risk of destruction and wiping off from the face of the earth, what does one do to resurrect it – to update the book with the characters from it but with events that transpired in real time?

It would drive us to the basic question – Is all our history learned through books true? How far is it from what happened and do we even care? Even if we care, do we have any way of validating the facts? If the story reinstates the faith and hope ( a reference to all our mythological folklore), if it maintains the harmony in the present-day society, I would not need to validate it. It doesn’t matter. Does it?

Second, The Music. Even though the story tracks the life of Sparrow, who was once believed to be the prodigy in the Chinese world- with the likes of Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Bach, went on to working in a factory that built radios. Is he protesting a communist system that is trying to behold the free flow of music or is he just trying to survive?

He is a protestor in his own form but what he sacrificed might not make sense to someone like Kai, his student, who admired him to the core. But, option for Kai, are very limited. It is him to survive or his master’s work that needed the visibility. He chose the first.

The novel lists multiple references to various music in terms of Symphonies and magical lyrics that go along the flow of the story. I am planning to list this collection to celebrate the magic of music. May be a reread version article?


Third, The Revolution. Let go of folklore. Let go of music. The book narrates the story of Revolution and Counter- revolution as it takes multiple shapes, sizes, volumes, and effects. The key events capture the Cultural Revolution, Land Acquisition, and Modern Day Communist uprising. These events either destroyed the promise delivered by the Conservatory or the lives of many thousands of students at Tiananmen Square.

What remains of the end is a history as quoted by Indian revolutionary writer, Srirangam Sreenivas Rao (Sri Sri) in his famous anthology of poems called “Mahaprastanam” (The Great Journey) as:

Whichever country’s history you see                                                                                                                        What is the reason to be proud of?
Entire history of human race                                                                                                                                        is exploitation of others.

Entire history of human race                                                                                                                                       is an exercise in mutual destruction
Entire history of human race                                                                                                                                       is drenched in the blood of the wars 

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 As they say, the best things always come in the end and that’s the hope humans live with. Overall, Madeliene Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an epic novel, a masterpiece, that would remain as a piece of literature that has its core at the center of Chinese cultural and political evolution that uses music and stories as the medium.

This is my pick for Man Booker 2016 Prize.

Man Booker Shortlist Series:

His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Sellout” by Paul Beatty

All That Man Is” by David Szalay

Eileen“- Ottessa Moshfegh

Hot Milk”- Deborah Levy


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