I’m listening to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations due to Madeleine Thien’s absorbing epic novel, set in 20th century China. Sparrow, one of the main characters and a composer, passionately embraces the Variations and notably this recording. For a week I’ve been listening to it — I wanted to experience what the gifted Sparrow was hearing.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing spans a large chunk of time from the early years of Mao Zedong’s rise to power through the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square – essentially 1949 through 1989. It follows the lives of three musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music: Sparrow, who’s working on the final movement of his symphony; his cousin Zhuli, a violin prodigy living with Sparrow’s family after her parents are denounced and sentenced to hard labor; and Jiang Kai, a brilliant pianist, orphaned by the sweeping famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1962). Together and apart, the composer, violinist and pianist remain devoted friends and musicians who struggle through the terrifying repression of Mao Zedong’s communism, including the Cultural Revolution that began in the late 1960s.
Their fates are deeply involving, as one would want from an epic story. Also, the historical perspective pierces with an unsettling recollection of China’s violent, cruel past where people were randomly accused of crimes against the state, tortured and sent to labor camps. The detail of the music, which the three study, share and keep close to themselves, uplifts the narrative with inspired joy. For those who know and love classical music, there’s a thrill of satisfying recognition.
In this small paragraph toward the book’s end, Sparrow is now a husband and father working at a factory. He long ago had to abandon his symphony, due to repressive communist rule. Here he listens to the Goldberg Variations.
It was dawn by the time Sparrow cycled home from the factory. The 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations rippled through his headphones, and the music felt both long and momentary. For this new recording, Glenn Gould had instilled a continuous tempo, a pulse, so that all thirty variations more clearly belonged to a unified piece. A few weeks after the 1981 recording was released, Glenn Gould had died suddenly at the age of fifty. Sparrow had not learned of Gould’s death until years later, and convinced himself the radio announcer was mistaken. So much so that a few months ago, when a letter from Kai mentioned the death of Glenn Gould, Sparrow had been upset by it all over again. What kind of a man had the celebrated pianist been? he wondered. If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?
Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins in December 1990, when Sparrow’s teen-aged daughter Ai-Ming arrives in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the home of Jiang Kai’s daughter and widow. She becomes close to them, and through Ai-Ming’s storytelling about the past, the lives of the musicians and their extended families come to life. Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It’s a large, engrossing novel.