Why Do Not Say We Have Nothing should win the Man Booker

Madeleine Thien’s novel of music and silence during China's Cultural Revolution reveals the importance of storytelling.

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Predicting the Man Booker prize winner is a notoriously difficult game. But if I was forced to bet – and, working at the New Statesman, there’s always a chance one will be – I’d plump for Madeleine Thien.

A Canadian short story writer and novelist who is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, Thien’s writing received early praise from Alice Munro, who said of her debut collection Simple Recipes that she “astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity”.

 It seems useless – and foolhardy – to attempt to advance on Munro’s judgement. Thien’s latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is marked by the same precision that makes Thien’s short stories so entrancing. Taking its title from the Chinese version of “The Internationale”, which became the national anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic when it was established in 1931, the novel tells the story of an extended family before, during and after the Cultural Revolution. The story is focussed on three musicians – an introverted and anxious composer, Sparrow, gifted violinist Zhuli and her fellow student at the conservatory, Kai – as they struggle to come to terms with their love of music, and each other, while living under a state in which one’s taste can in itself be traitorous. Simultaneously, it tells the story of its narrator, a Canadian-Chinese mathematician, as she attempts to unravel the history of her family in the present day. The different generations are tied together by a mysterious, handwritten chapbook called the Book of Records, which passes from author to author like a virus.

To communicate the emotional depth of this world is an achievement in itself – to do so with such Thien’s elegant touch is startling. Too often, novels which skip between different time periods are imbalanced, with one story more compelling than another, so that the reader – or at least, the reader as impatient as me – finds themselves skipping the sixteenth century sections, or those from the perspective of a tedious character. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of the few where both tales are equally enchanting.

Happily, for the reviewer, Do Not Say We Have Nothing provides the perfect metaphor for its finely-balanced composition: the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a cliché to remark on the relationship between music and mathematics, but the intricacy of Thien’s storytelling nevertheless invites the comparison. A term used to describe the interplay of two different yet harmonious musical lines, Thien’s repeated references to counterpoint – and Bach’s use of silence – might refer to the novel itself, which interweaves its two stories, and the many smaller narratives within them, as eloquently as a concerto.

This is not to say, however, that music is always a pleasure in a novel whose characters all develop a fraught relationship to their craft, and particularly to the pleasure they experience listening to Western music. At the conservatory where Zhuli, Kai and Sparrow meet, students pen long missives denouncing their tutors. These are hung up with the ink still shining. One, seen by Zhuli on her professor’s door, “as tall and she was”, has ink “so freshly black, she thought she could wipe the malicious words off with her hands”. During one Struggle Session, an event during which supposed class enemies are publicly denounced and tortured, she has ink thrown across her face. When the crowd surrounding her demand she confesses, she finds herself unable to do it: “Is it a crime to disbelieve? She wanted to weep at her own slowness, her own naivete. The ink drying on her face made the skin tight and painful.”

Despite these sessions, and the best efforts of the censor, Western culture seeps into their lives, represented in the novel by winking references to literary and musical works instantly familiar to an English audience. On the way to her extended family after her mother and father are denounced, Zhuli is accompanied by a woman eating White Rabbit Creamy Candy, and thinks, “the White Rabbit is taking me to my mother”. These references join the Book of Records in speaking to the enduring power of storytelling. At one point, one character tries to reassure another: “my brother, we will not be abandoned by history”.

All regimes rely on secrets and silence to operate. Do Not Say We Have Nothing reminds us what fiction can do for the truth. It speaks to the humanity that continues even in the harshest, most self-destructively paranoid conditions, and it shows how the savagery of destroying culture comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of human bodies. For this reason alone, I hope it wins the Man Booker prize.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

This article appears in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge