Short list 2016
In the eighties it became clear that communist China was not all it had proclaimed to be. The first flaws in its image were shown. Mao and his cultural revolution had managed to ruin the country in stead of improving it. It became clear – even to the average not overly interested or well-informed Western civilian – that a powerful clan had been repressing ‘the people’. Fear, poverty and starvation were omni-present. Madeleine Thien’s main character shares her father’s story with us, the readers. He was a classically trained pianist who after having left China never ever touched a piano again. He was a child of the revolution, oppressor and victim all at the same time. Thien makes a veritable case for Mao and his gang brainwashing the Chinese and turning them weary and frightened, by brutally separating families or by demoting people to meaningless jobs in remote areas. Thien paints a downright sobering and shocking image of the Red Brigades. Mao’s young guards are agitators who have been roused by the officials, in the main time being scared to death to appear to be insufficiently patriotic. They play a mayor part in blaming and shaming sessions that usually end with the violent death of the accused, just the one exception being able to remain his or her dignity. Apart from being a good reflection on China’s turbulent past, Thien’s novel is also exceptionally well written. She combines the magnitude of a county’s past with an almost intimate picture of two families. Though she describes horrible things, she still manages to make us feel close to those families. She is involved with her characters, she makes sure that they are real flesh and blood people. In doing so Thien confronts us with our own humanity. Who are we to blame those not daring to confront the government, would we have dared to be different? Through Thien we experience what it must have been to be one of the people under suspicion, to be one of those people who happen to be on the right side – sometimes forever blaming themselves for not defending their loved ones. Thien’s characters are ordinary people, she does not judge them, she does not absolve them. I loved this novel, it is my favourite for the Booker.