Turning the wheel of history

Journeys are pleasant quests. On a journey, one is typically on the move to gain something. But when a desperate need to recover that which you can’t live without sets you in motion, the experience becomes less joyful, more intense. Some quests are full of meaning, and they become obsessions.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by canadian author Madeleine Thien, is a young woman’s giant quest into China, guided by a mysterious and incomplete book, The Book of Records, filled with stories of men and women who fought to be themselves in a world where it was criminal to have dreams of your own.

The novel -shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction- presses repeatedly on the issue that, theoretically, life and society can start from scratch after a revolution. But as you read on you’ll find that, in reality, this effort is never-ending because the new comes from the old and the old grows from the new, as the novel says.

Do you have a special or positive meaning for the word ‘revolution’?

The two definitions we use in English word are fascinatingly oppositional:

  • The forcible overthrow of a government or a system, an insurrection
  • The movement of one object around another, a rotation.

In Chinese, the word ?? fan shen was often used in reference to revolution, and it means "to turn the body over" or to stand up and be the master of one’s fate, to emancipate oneself.

Mao Zedong famously wrote that "Power comes out of a barrel of a gun" and "A revolution is not a dinner party. It is not writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another".

During the 27 years Mao was in power, an estimated 60 million Chinese citizens died as a direct result of his political campaigns and policies. It’s difficult for me to put faith in the word revolution. I don’t accept that violence can be purified by ideology and moral righteousness.

Many characters are poets, intellectuals, fine musicians hunted by the Party. Do you believe the ideal worlds created by art are more valuable to an individual than a revolution in society?

I think I believe the opposite – that the contradictions of art, the messiness, the falling short, the collage and counterpoint of ideas, the subjectivity of response – is art’s power. Every answer begets a question, every question can branch into other ways of seeing.

So much confusion stemmed from the ideal of change. Peasants needed to become industrial workers, brothers and sons had to be soldiers, and so on. So much arbitrariness and improvisation that needed to be legitimized through culture. Art became a form of oppression and anyone with an artistic vocation had to choose between becoming a traitor to the Party and fooling himself. Can good art be ideological?

I think it would be very difficult for lasting art to be ideological, particularly if ideology were the primary motivating force.

I’m not sure that the tragedy of China’s Cultural Revolution stemmed from “the ideal of change.” I think it stemmed from power, specifically the attempt by Mao to maintain power via permanent revolution. In those years, nobody could be pure enough for the Party because the Cultural Revolution was never about what it purported to be about – social justice – but about loyalty to Mao and the purging of dissent. It was a human tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.

History is like a mark on a nation´s body. It´s indelible, but it can be revised, altered, corrected, wiped and eventually forgotten. However, most characters in this novel cannot forget. At some points, their tragedies become the only meaningful thing in their lives. Except for the students that protested in Tiananmen in 1989. “Without memory, they´re free”. That´s the reason why student movements have so much energy and strength, but it´s also why -sometimes- they´re so ephemeral. Do you agree?

I don’t agree that their tragedies are the only meaningful things in their lives; in fact, I believe quite the opposite. Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai are trying to know how to create music, and how the classical music they love elicits many ways of thinking and existing. The contradictions and complexities of their private worlds are in conflict with the political times in which they live.

One of the characters in the novel, Ling, observes that the students in 1989 have less memory of the political campaigns and purges of the 1950s and 60s, and thus are more bold, more free. But there’s a contradiction here, too, because the students also quote the words of Chairman Mao and sing the same revolutionary songs of earlier generations. They want their words to lead to another kind of social change. Far from being ephemeral, the six weeks of protests in 1989 brought up to a million Chinese citizens – from every age and political background – into Tiananmen Square and set off a wave of protest movements across Europe that changed our political landscape forever.

The debates of students, workers, parents and grandparents in China in 1989 embodied ideas that had been part of the country’s political debates throughout the 20th century, ideas which exert a powerful hold today, as witnessed by Charter 08 and China’s treatment of its Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison last year.

In ancient Greece, the epic poems offered a people solace in the face of their destiny. Your novel has been described as a ‘supple epic’. The character´s lives are magnified through literature, the causes of their disintegration denounced once and again. Did you find any healing while writing? Was it one of your concerns, to help people heal?

No, I think my concerns were of a very different nature and I hope the novel is yet more complex. The structure of Do Not Say We Have Nothing owes a debt to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the seemingly simple motif that gives rise to increasingly complex forms and structures. The novel is also about Tiananmen Square, which was considered the “zero point” – the point on which all others depend – by Chinese architects who redesigned the Square in the early 1950s. The zero point in the novel is the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, the moment from which all other moments are connected, forwards and backwards in time.

There is tremendous life and life experience in China. As everywhere, people want to be able to live their lives and raise their families in relative security and prosperity. Among the many banners the protesters carried in 1989 was one that resonated not only with the past but with the present: “We are not a mob. We are civilized members of society.” Despite the 60 million deaths suffered during Mao’s campaigns, people could not believe the government could turn the army and tanks against its own people. The faith in better days is born again and again, and is relentless. People risk a great deal in the hope of creating a more just society; I think that’s entirely different from “solace in the face of destiny".

Madeleine Thien in conversation with Philippe Sands. Sunday, February 3rd at 10:00, Hotel Sofitel (Salón Santa Clara)