Rewriting time in ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

“You could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its content when you stopped reading,” Sparrow muses, upon hearing Beethoven for the first time in nearly a decade, “but music wasn’t the same…it was most alive when it was heard.”

Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is a novel obsessed with the past and its malleability in the hands of the present, as it navigates the history of two families over the course of three generations, from the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The narrative frequently shifts between the past and the present. In the present timeline, 10-year-old Marie Jiang and her mother take Ai-ming, a Chinese refugee, into their home in Vancouver, Canada. With Ai-ming’s assistance, Marie deciphers her deceased father’s notebooks, which contain a series of stories called “The Book of Records.” Through these stories, she pieces together her and Ai-ming’s shared family histories and how events set into motion decades ago culminated in her present.

The past timeline is divided into three parts, containing three sets of interrelated characters. First, Swirl and her husband Wen the Dreamer are sent to a re-education camp as punishment for hiding valuable heirlooms and books in their home. Second, Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai play music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution. Third, Ai-ming finds herself embroiled in the Tiananmen Square protests. After the massacre, her mother arranges for her to flee to Canada.

The novel’s characters are enraptured by stories. In the beginning, Wen the Dreamer falls in love with Swirl and sends her a copy of “The Book of Records,” a piece of fiction composed by an unknown author. Later, Wen the Dreamer edits details in “The Book of Records” as a way to memorialize the dead: “He would populate this fictional world with true name and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.” As “The Book of Records” is amended and expanded over the course of several decades, it’s not entirely clear how much of it is fictional and how much of it is real — though perhaps this distinction is not important at all.

More than simply being enraptured by stories, Thien’s characters are preoccupied with manipulating their realities. In the years following Zhuli’s suicide, while Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are in hiding, Swirl’s sister is unable to bring herself to inform Swirl about her daughter’s death. Instead, she invents stories of Zhuli as if she were still alive, writing to her sister about an opportunity Zhuli received to study at the Paris Conservatory. The most heartbreaking parts of Thien’s novel rest in these attempts to rewrite time, to fix past regrets, through story. In the last few moments of her life, Zhuli ponders: “Could it be that everything in this life had been written from the beginning? She could not accept this.”

Although this cast of characters is seemingly disparate, separated by both distance and time, they are conjoined in the way they make sense of the world through fixed obsessions. Marie is obsessed with mathematics; Ai-ming, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl with stories; Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai with music. In some ways these obsessions feel like ways to fill in the murkiness of these characters’ existences. “My mind was full of numbers,” Marie proclaims. “I was not lonely.” 

Who are these characters in the absence of these obsessions? After the Cultural Revolution, Sparrow builds crates and assembles radios at a factory. He has given up on music; even listening to classical music has become almost unbearable to him. There is something irrevocable about his post-Cultural Revolution self, as if there were simply no way for him to become who he once was. To Ai-ming, Sparrow is no longer referred to as “Sparrow,” but rather “Bird of Quiet.” It is only during the Tiananmen Square protests that he is finally able to write a new symphony, the first in many years, titled “The Sun Shines on the People’s Square.” This composition serves, to Sparrow, as a connection between his past and present: “He couldn’t shake the feeling that…it had been written by himself and another, a counterpoint between two people alive and awake, young and old, who had lived entirely different worlds.”

What are these obsessions in the absence of these characters? Early on, Ai-ming leaves Marie and her mother to travel to the United States and then to China. While reading the novel, I kept waiting for Marie to reunite with Ai-ming, yet by the end, it’s not clear what has become of Ai-ming. It seems impossible that Ai-ming’s stories could remain with Marie when Ai-ming herself is gone. Could stories fill in the space that a person leaves? Even when Ai-ming appears in the past timeline, she feels in some ways like a ghost: her present unknown, her past unchangeable. “I wanted to find [Ai-ming] again,” Marie declares, “to let her know what I remembered, and to return something of what she had given me.” This wish is, in the end, unfulfilled.

In the past timeline, Thien writes in omniscient third person; there is something so fanciful about the way that the narrative jumps from character to character, briefly inhabiting their wishes and anxieties, but just as abruptly leaving them. I don’t feel particularly attached to any of these characters individually, yet I’m undeniably drawn to the stories around them. I’m not sure why this is: maybe these characters are just vehicles for the narrative to move through. I suppose this must be the function of these stories in the novel: a way to grapple with the history — the regrets and the mistakes — that lead to one’s present.

It is difficult to say whether there is any resolution to this novel at all. Marie, in the final pages of the novel, is not so different from who she was in the beginning; it is not any easier to reckon with the past now that it is known by her. While watching an orchestra in Shanghai perform Sparrow’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, dedicated to Kai, Marie comes to a realization: “We loved and were loved. Ai-ming…you and I are still here.” It’s not entirely clear where, exactly, “here” is: perhaps it’s the Vancouver apartment where Marie met Ai-ming, or the stories shared between Ai-ming and Marie or even the music itself, suspended somewhere in the audience’s imagination. In the end, the only solace that these characters have is a place that lives solely in memories and stories.

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