Madeleine Thien’s Chinese Encyclopedia: Facts, Musics, Sympathies
This article explores the “encyclopedic” properties of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), seeking to define the novel as inherently comparative—that is, providing, in Edward Said’s words, “a comparative or, better, a
contrapuntal perspective” on the world with no need for a second counterpart text to draw cross-literary parallels. Written from a transpacific narratorial stance of a millennial Vancouver-based daughter of Chinese immigrants, the narrative communicates her second-hand knowledge about the traumatic twentieth-century history of the People’s Republic of China, accumulated in multiple alternating substories of ordinary individuals’ “practical past” as opposed to official historiography. The article likens Thien’s patchwork storytelling to Jorge Luis Borges’s apocryphal “Chinese” encyclopedia and novel, to the premodern equation between language and reality discussed in Michel Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge,” to classical Chinese novels as described by Goethe and Franco Moretti, and to Bach’s polyphonic layout of the Goldberg Variations. Constructing sympathetic networks of music and literature, Do Not Say We Have Nothing facilitates readerly immersion, yet its fictional storyworld may not feel universally plausible. Sharing its writer’s experience of teaching Thien in Hong Kong, the article suggests that a critique of the novel’s Western, nearly Orientalist standpoint with respect to sensitive issues of recent Chinese history does not dismiss the contrapuntal outlook Thien’s readers are invited to adopt beyond their experiential backgrounds. Reading Thien, one learns to hear the world’s polyphony. That, and not a comprehensive multitude of facts summarizing a national
mentality and coherent knowledge about the world, makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing encyclopedic.