Monday 10 October 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

For four days I've been trying to write a review that would do this rich, engrossing, mosaic of a book due justice.

It wasn't so much writer's block as writer's muddle.

There was soooo much to say! I couldn't even decide which lens or which perspective to choose?

Because I was enjoying Do Not Say We Have Nothing so much, I began researching stuff before I had finished reading.

I looked up the classical pieces of music conducted by Glenn Gould* that Thien mentioned throughout the book (Bach's Goldberg Variations and Sonata for Piano & Violin no 4) and listened to them as I read the book.

I researched the politicians and artists who were real people. He Luting (1903 - 1999) was a real composer and he really did say 'shame on you for lying' when hauled before a televised interrogation during the Cultural Revolution.

I researched the L'Internationale** to find out the various interpretations of the phrase that Thien used in her title.

I simply couldn't get enough of this book - I wanted to know more, delve deeper. I wanted to totally immerse myself in the reading experience.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chinese composer called Sparrow and the things that happened to him and around him during his lifetime. A lifetime that encompassed the extraordinary events from the Chinese Revolution to Tiananmen Square.

However, Thien weaves in many threads and motifs, until we have a story within a story, across three generations and two continents. She plays with recurring themes, copies of copies and the cyclical nature of history.

Music is a big part of the story and I found her descriptions of the creative process and the interpretation of music mesmerising.

Equally mesmerising, but in a horrifying way, was the astounding use of double-speak by politicians and revolutionaries during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Thien showed some of the effects of 'self-criticism', 'struggle sessions' and 'denunciations' on the creative mind as they learnt to silence their talents and learnt to live without their language.

One of the major themes developed throughout the story was the life of homosexuals in China*** during the Mao years. Sparrow and Jiang Kai obviously had an intense loving relationship that could not be realised openly. One had to become a hard-line revolutionary, destroying art and lives, while trying to protect his friend from within, who eventually fled the country. While the other stayed, gave up his career as a composer, married and worked in a radio factory of the governments choosing.

Later on, Sparrow's daughter, Ai Ming, also developed very strong feelings for her female neighbour during the heightened times surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Thien intertwined mathematics, etymology, translation, calligraphy, memory, disappearance, loss, free-will, and the nature of time seamlessly. There were moments of humour and moments of pathos.

I have read some reviews that felt Do Not Say We Have Nothing was too wordy. Not for me. I loved every single moment and thoroughly enjoyed the multi-layered, enchanting nature of Thien's loquaciousness.
However this book will not be for everyone.
Hopefully this review will help you decide whether it's for you or not.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a keeper for me. I plan to reread this one day and I will be devastated if this book doesn't win one of the book awards that it is currently shortlisted for (Booker and Giller Prizes as well as the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award).

Below are some of the results of my research (thank you wikipedia):

  • The Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937) adopted a 19th century French socialist worker's song called L'Internationale** as their anthem. There was a line in the original (Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout) that according to Wikipedia could be translated as 'we are nothing, let us be all'.
  • Qu Qiubai translated a version of this song from Russian into Chinese in 1923 which changed this line to mean 'Do not say that we have nothing.'
  • To my mind, the Chinese version has a sense of martyrdom inherent in its phrasing. They are being watched and judged by others who say they have nothing. Whereas the English translation seems to resound with solidarity and a proactive intent.
  • The anthem later became a rallying cry for the students during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
  • Glenn Gould* (25 September 1932 – 4 October 1982) was a Canadian pianist. He became famous for his interpretations of Bach's music. His methods of recording, splicing, mixing and editing his performances in the studio caused controversy at the time. Critics questioned the authenticity of his work and made claims of imitation. More delicious multiplicity on Thien's behalf.
  • Historically China, was tolerant of sexual experimentation and same-sex couples. However in 1949***, homosexuality was declared to be a sign of Western bourgeois decadence and vice by the Communist Party. 
  • Treatment of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution was harsh, many were humiliated in public and some were executed. They were forced into heterosexual marriages and all LGBTQ art and culture was destroyed. However, all sexual activity and discussion was considered lustful and decadent during this time. Personal choice was not important. Affairs, sexual freedom and even sex education in schools were all considered enemies of class. Neutral gender clothing was promoted and monogamy expected.
  • Some of the books read by the characters during the story - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Kang Youwei's Book of the Great Community and Border Town by Shen Congwen.
  • Thien was born in Vancouver. Her mother was born in Hongkong and her father was born in an ethnic Chinese area of Malaysia. They met whilst studying in Australia. The immigrated to Canada in 1974 just before Thien was born.


  1. Anonymous11/10/16

    Lovely review and considering the backdrop and complex themes of the novel, I can quite understand why you needed time to write this piece! But it turned out wonderful and I who had been dithering on to read or not to read this novel, am off to get a copy!

    1. That makes me so happy! I wanted to write a review that would encourage people to read this book...I look forward to reading your thoughts as you go.

  2. Great review, Brona! This is the only Giller book that I haven't gotten my hands on yet. But, in a way, I'm happy to leave it until the end so that I can take my time reading it. Your review has me anxious to get to it! I love that you shared some of the information you googled. The Glen Gould thing is a funny coincidence - another book I just read (The Hidden Keys by Andre Alexis) also features his music in one part of the book.
    (Naomi from

    1. Do you also read your GG shortlisted books? When I was writing this review I found out that Thien was also shortlisted for it. The other books on the list looked rather intriguing too.

      The book I read after DNSWHN also featured a composer - Amsterdam - with the author giving quite a few lovely descriptions of the creative process and the interpretation of pieces. I preferred those in DNSWHN as I wasn't always sure if the ones in Amsterdam weren't actually said tongue-in-cheek!

      I told my bookshop colleagues yesterday that DNSWHN is now officially my favourite book of 2016.

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :-)

    2. I often find the books on the GG list even more intriguing than the ones on the Giller list. I'm not likely to read them all at once, though - more likely to just pick through them over time. I did, however, just read Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush as it is on 3 of our lists this year (the other being the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize). So, really, it wouldn't be a big stretch to finish off the GG list as well as the Giller this year!


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