I thought I was running late for court. The Judge normally starts at 9 sharp. I ran as fast as my heels allowed me, when I walked in, the court was filled with lawyers and public members.

A smartly dressed lady said to me, ‘There is a reference.’

“ What reference ?” I was obviously in a daze.

The woman looked puzzled and she could not figure out if I had not known the meaning of holding a reference or that there was a reference going on.

“You know reference for departed members of the Bar?” 
I felt really awkward that I had not bothered to read all the circulars that had been sent  to me.

A couple  of these lawyers who have passed on had acted for my clients’ opponents and they had fought hard for their clients. I cannot help thinking about  how mortal we are. I know it is such a cliché to think so and it makes me think of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song, “ Blowing in the Wind” .It also makes me want to run to the music CD shop where the shop manager was supposed to have placed an order for one of Bob Dylan’s albums to replace  a French CD that I had bought as a going away present for an ex- staff who was attached to an association I volunteered in. The staff did not want to accept any gifts from the organisation as a token of appreciation. She was consumed with so much resentment and anger that her only way to let bygone be bygone was to leave no trace in her recent memory. She was certainly thinking about her future.  

Change is what we constantly have to deal with in life. Every individual evolves and adapts to the changes in and around them in order to continue living. What if your country is undergoing  a revolution that will bring about changes so huge that everything that you think you stand for and pursue will be unacceptable and you are forced to cast aside your aspirations and the only way to stay alive is to hide your dreams  and  give up your talent  so that you could protect yourself and your family? I could only imagine that life would be unbearable.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing written by Madeleine Thien is a fiction set during the Cultural Revolution in China. Life was brutal and oppressive for those who were intellectual, artistic and creative. Those citizens whose pursuits were not in conformist with the regime had to undergo re-education. The story is about Marie’s ongoing struggle to understand her father’s tragic life, unrequited dreams and attempt to understand the turbulent past of China. Marie remembers her dad, Jiang Kai as a kind but melancholy man. He was a renowned concert pianist in China and he gave her her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling. When he died at age 39, she was only a child. Marie is a Mathematics professor in Simon Fraser University in Canada. When she was still a teenager in Vancouver, her mother received a letter from Shanghai asking for a favour. There was a request to take care of Ai Ming, a 19-year-old who had got into trouble in Beijing during the Tiananmen demonstrations.

In  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ai Ming said to the protagonist, Marie,

“ You understand, don’t you ?” she said. “The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.

Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. Marie recognised it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.

Teacher Sparrow, a great composer, was Ai Ming’s father and he had to hide his true calling. He witnessed how young music students became red guards and ridiculed, tormented their professor and President of Shanghai Conservatory as their traitor and counter-revolutionary. Sparrow was Jiang Kai’s composition teacher and they were close.

When life gets tough, it is music, beauty and art that make it bearable. Imagine the horrors that befell classical musicians when the music they loved was forbidden. Their instruments were destroyed and they were accused of vanity and regarded as national threat thus dispatched to work in the farms and factories of the hinterlands. The movement began during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the people had to become only what the ruling party proclaimed them to be, they existed to be forged and re-forged by the Party.

Zhuli, a talented young musician was taken away to live with Sparrow’s mother who was her aunt when her parents were sent away for re-education. Her aunt was known as Big Mother Knife who was Ai Ming’s grandmother. and Sparrow’s mother.

When her mother returned home after six years in the desert camp, Zhuli wondered what words she could possibly say to her. There were no words adequate to the feeling between them.’

 Zhuli felt that it had been her fault that her parents had been persecuted. Zhuli had discovered the underground library and she went down almost every day. 

‘It was just below ground, as if a very large and well-made wooden box, a shipping container, had been buried with a living room inside it, like an afterlife for Old West. There was  a cushioned chair large enough for six Zhulis, an imported kerosene lamp and a full case of oil, stacks and stacks of books, and a soft, woven mat on the floor.

A boy saw her emerge from the soil and that very day, the container was dug up and all the objects carted off and the books, the soft carpets and the cushioned chair were confiscated and neighbours plastered off the mud brick house with hastily written denunciations.

The novel contains a web of tales and it takes concentration to read it. Music serves as a figure for many things in the novel: Kai’s troubled relationship to his past and homeland, his love for teacher Sparrow and a repressive regime. When Kai met up with Sparrow again, the latter was a changed man for his hands had learned another language entirely after being sent to work in a factory and he had gone from building wooden crates to making radios. He could no longer compose music. When the country was opening up again, the possibilities broke his heart as he was no longer the same person. He had become the Bird of Quiet.

“ I used to be humbled before music, he thought. I loved music so much it blinded me to the world. What right do I have, do any of us have, to go back? Repetition was an illusion. The idea of return, of beginning over again. of creating a new country, had always been a deception, a beautiful dream from which they had woken. Perhaps they had loved one another, but now Sparrow had his parents to care for. They relied on him, and his life was not his own, it belonged to his wife and to Ai -ming as well. And it was true, factory work had brought a peace he had never known before. The routine had freed him. 

Madeleine Thien writes,

IN A SINGLE  YEAR, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’

The opening line is haunting and captivating. The prose is descriptive and well written. A definitely good read. 

I often turn to my reading and writing for solace and they are the air that I must breathe thus  I cannot imagine a world where you are allowed to chant and read only certain writings. But then so often as I read , I wonder if we are truly thinking as freely as we like to think we are. Are thoughts really our own? 

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