The winner of the 2016 Man Booker Award for fiction will be announced this coming Tuesday. Of the six books on the shortlist, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my choice to win the coveted prize. The Canadian Thien, who now lives in Montreal, covers ground in this book that has been pretty much ignored in contemporary English language fiction; namely the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the harsh toll it took on the lives of writers, artists, and most especially, in the context of Thien’s novel, musicians. As the Nazis did in Hitler’s Germany, the Red Guards burned books. But in their assault on bourgeois culture, the Red Guards took it a horrifying step further by savagely destroying pianos and violins as well.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing focuses on three brilliant musical talents, who try to function in the constricted artistic world of revolutionary China, but ultimately all their lives are destroyed by the oppressive environment in which they lived and worked. The narrative tells us how Zhuli, the young woman with extraordinary violin skills, Kai, the passionate and versatile pianist, and Sparrow, the pioneering and imaginative composer, all are artistically and personally victimized in the Cultural Revolution. It takes the Canadian progeny of Sparrow and the Chinese progeny of Kai to discover the secrets of the past, and to tie all the troubling and confusing loose ends together by the conclusion of the book.
There are other worthy books on the Man Booker shortlist, but none have the literary heft and emotional impact on the reader as does Thien’s novel. I especially liked Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, and I would not be shocked if either of these would win the prize. I would be shocked and disappointed if either one of the two American novels, The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, or All That Man Is by Canadian-born British writer David Szalay, happens to be selected as the winner.