Hesitated over Madeleine Thien's 'Do Not Say We Have Nothing'. It cuts a bit close and I'm not sure I want to read about the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution in detail too often outside of necessary work research. Even if it's well-written fiction. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
This isn't my favorite genre, but I enjoyed it. 'Enjoyed' in the sense of appreciating how the story flowed, how the writing put across emotions and fleshed out the characters. It evoked grief in me and brought twinges to the heart. It also tells me that humans have learnt nothing very much from history.
Of music. Of humans. Of their painful stories. Of the story behind He Luting Concert Hall at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (上海音乐学院，贺绿汀音乐厅). Of the soul-debilitating Cultural Revolution 1966-1976 (文革) initiated by Chairman Mao, and the later events of Tiananmen 1989 (六四事件或八九学运) in China. The story is told through the eyes of adult Marie Jiang, who is a first-generation Chinese-Canadian and a mathematician by profession.
We hear how in 1990, possibly 19-year-old Ai Ming came to Toronto in Canada to seek refuge with 12-year old Marie Jiang Li-Ling who barely speaks Mandarin or writes Chinese and her mother. Later on, we learn that Marie's deceased father (he committed suicide in Hong Kong) Jiang Kai was previously a talented concert pianist, and Ai Ming's father Sparrow who was a gifted composer was Jiang Kai's music mentor at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s. Alongside Kai, Sparrow also mentored his own cousin Zhuli, an equally talented violinist. This is where the author weaved fact into fiction- Sparrow's professor is the said famed He Luting (贺绿汀) whom the Shanghai Conservatory actually named its hall after. Of course tragedy ensued. Persecution of family members, death, suffering, angst, and never playing music again. Artists, academics, teachers and musicians suffered greatly during those periods. They were persecuted for their 'left-wing liberal' ideals and sense of self and identity. Many were sent to labor camps and farmlands to be 'reformed'.
Ai Ming eventually left Marie and her mother in Toronto, making her way the United States, ending up in New York without a residency permit, then heading back to Beijing in 1996 for her mother's funeral, and staying on in China without a hukou. It was said that she went to Gansu Province. After 1998, nobody heard from Ai Ming again. Decades later, Marie decided to track down Ai Ming, to no avail. But there was of course a 'lost' composition, a sonata, by Sparrow that was finally found and retrieved by an adult Marie from her deceased father's possessions and from another part still held by the Hong Kong Police, and the story moved to Shanghai, 2016. In 2016 Marie finally managed to have a small orchestra play the sonata to an audience of thirty who knew Sparrow and Ai Ming and her mother Ling.
The room stilled. Professor Liu lifted his violin. Sparrow's Sonata for Piano and Violin, dedicated to my father, began.
At first the violin played alone, a seam of notes that slowly widened. When the piano entered, I saw a man turning in measured, elegant circles, I saw him looking for the centre that eluded him, this beautiful centre that promised an end to sorrow, the lightness of freedom. The piano stepped forward and the violin lifted, a man crossing a room and a girl weeping as she climbed a flight of steps; they played as if one sphere could merge into the other, as if they could arrive in time and be redeemed in a single overlapping moment. And even when the notes they played were the very same, the piano and violin were irrevocably apart, drawn by different lives and different times. Yet in their separateness, and in the quiet, they contained one another.