There are times that you get so attached to a book that when you finish reading it, it is difficult to put the feelings and the emotions down on paper. I finished reading Madeleine Thien’s extraordinary novel ‘Do not say we have nothing’ a few days ago but I still feel emotionally attached to it. “Beauty leaves its imprint in the mind”, Sparrow, one of the main characters in the story , has written on the back of his composition.
‘Do not say we have nothing’ follows the fate of a family of musicians from 1949 to the present day, covering the cultural revolution and Tiananmen Square protests in China. It is a story that evokes the powerful terror, the humiliation, the suffering and the despair following the cultural revolution in China.
Music plays an important part in the book. Western music especially, was considered a pollution, a contamination to traditional Chinese way of life that needed to be purged. Two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg variations are running throughout the book, like a soundtrack to the story. It starts with a beautifully tranquil Aria, which fuels the 30 more complex – like the political events in China – variations that follow.
Madeleine Thien is a compelling writer; her epic, powerful story flows like silk, it’s tough and strong but at the same time soft and lightweight. It is also complex, harmonic and deeply moving, like the Goldberg Variations.