This will be the first of three posts spiralling around notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations.

In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

“Bach’s Goldberg Variations was key. It taught me a great deal about counterpoint and structure and ambiguity and range. And Glenn Gould’s recordings of this music taught me about expression, time, desire.”

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of music and silence.


“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”


“Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? How had her father and mother escaped from time, and how could they ever come back?”


thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She said, “The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.” In the west, in the dry wind of the Gansu Desert, Big Mother and Swirl had finally recovered Wen the Dreamer. He stared at the illusion before him and wept.”


“In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?”


“Paper flowers jumbled over the ground, paper carnations grew from the trees, though some had fallen and been mashed by the everlasting stream of bicycles. He heard their tinkling bells and also a music in his head, shaken loose, the Twelfth Goldberg Variation, two voices engaged in a slightly out-of-breath canon, like a knot that never got tied. He could still write music. The thought jolted him.”


“He had lived only half a life. Without intending to, he had silenced Zhuli. He remembered how much of himself he had poured into that Symphony No. 3. He could have left the papers in the trusses of the roof, he could have hidden them with the Book of Records. Why had he not done so? Why had he destroyed them with his own hands?”


“If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?”


“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive, that is what I would tell him.”


“Noise from the ongoing demonstrations filled the room. Radio Beijing didn’t broadcast music anymore, instead the loudspeakers kept repeating the fact of martial law. He regretted all the radios he had ever built.”


“He wanted to find some way to cut all the wires, to hush all the voices, to broadcast stillness, quiet, on this city that was coming unmoored.”

More variations tomorrow….