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Music must be built by necessity

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a multi-voiced novel about the collective brainwashing of the Cultural Revolution.


Madeleine Thien:
Don't Say We Have Nothing
Granta, 2016

Madeleine Thien's novel has symphonic qualities. It is about people who have a close and vital relationship with classical music, and the work manages to reflect the complexity of music to greats like Bach and Shostakovich. The theme is repeated in various variations, the story builds up to a dramatic crescendo and the text has layer upon layer of meaning – it can withstand being read more than once. And not least, the novel uses the effective means contrast. Because on the other side of the music's freedom and variety stands the Chinese Communist Party's doctrinal coercion.

Own his story. At the center of this impressive work are two families that we follow for three periods of time: one from the Party's takeover in 1949 to the student revolt in 1989, the other a few months in 1991 and the third in 2016. There is not one protagonist, but the framework for the storytelling is Canadian-Chinese Marie. In 2016, she tries to find Ai-Ming, who visited her and her mother in Canada in 1991, who could shed new light on her father's mysterious death shortly in advance. Through a worn manuscript that has been sent from China to Canada – The Book of Records - rolls up family history. The manuscript has no clear start or end, and it contains many unanswered questions. Without comparison, you can see parallels to Vigdis Hjorths Heredity and environment. Both the novel itself and the incomplete screenplay are attempts to take ownership of their own history, not to drown in other people's versions.

Collective brainwashing. Through, among other things The Book of Records Marie finds out that her own and Ai-Ming's father, Kiang and Sparrow, were musical talents whose bond extended beyond purely friendly. Their past at the Shanghai Conservatory was attempted to be shattered by the cultural revolutionaries of the Red Revolution, but has survived with the help of fiction, as fiction in today's China tells of a reality the sitting party will not admit.

We humans tend to look for the aesthetically pleasing, whether politically correct. And perhaps that is because we find in art what is existentially correct.

The Book of Records is apparently about Da-Wei and May Fourth's love affair, but is filled with codes, edited and copied by the two families. In this way, they maintain contact with each other and their prehistory, while Mao & Co. trying to subject them to a collective brainwashing. There are a lot of good examples of this in Thien's book, so I can choose one that we western, technology-certified people can relate to. In 1989, as China slowly begins to open up to the rest of the world, Ai-Ming acquires a walkman for Sparrow. This does not go unnoticed in Beijing because “it was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts ». In our Norwegian times, where we hardly do anything other than wrap ourselves in private music, private thoughts and private confessional literature, this way of thinking seems extremely foreign.

If our lack of collective thinking is another type of dysfunction, I can not devote so much slit here, but it should be mentioned that Thien elegantly summarizes how capitalism's entry is not just a good one: "Was there anyone in this world who could taste something delicious – economic freedom and political reform – a taste that was salty and fattening and sweet and promising, and only satisfied with one mouthful? Who could wait patiently for nearly and a billion other people to also have a taste? Now, anyone would try to get a second mouthful, a third, a whole bowl for themselves. ”

Existentially correct. Like Yan Lianke, Thien plays on the powerful aesthetics of the Communist Party propaganda, while showing how difficult it is to remove the inherent ambivalence of language and aesthetics. For example, Thien illustrates how Chinese characters have multiple meanings: "Big Mother Knife, she muddily thought, used to nut 'yào bãng' when she scrubbed their only rice pot. The words meant 'brilliant country', and they also happened to be the name of the General Secretary of the Party. The disgraced, forms General-Secretary. " The reference to these linguistic nuts undermines the idea that it is possible to submit to a people aesthetically. As Yan Lianke also exemplifies with the leader who smuggles the Bible, we humans tend to seek the aesthetically pleasing, regardless of whether it is politically correct. And perhaps that is because we find in art what is existentially correct.

Don't Say We Have Nothing always comes back to the many recordings of Bachs Goldberg Variations. They all add something to the piece, but one is not necessarily more authentic than the other. This is also how Marie thinks about her father Kiang's life, marked by his secret desire for Sparrow: "Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn't render each variation false." This is the doctrine of art – which is not infrequently in contradistinction to official history writing.

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