Review by Vincent Rossmeier
Near the end of Ma Jian’s astonishing and poignantly unsettling new novel, the main character, Dai Wei, comes to a revelation. The year is 1999 and Dai Wei has been in a coma for over ten years, since being shot in the head by Chinese soldiers while participating in the student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Reflecting on the oppressive tactics used by the Chinese Communist government against its own citizens, Dai Wei observes, “In this police state, I’ve managed to gain freedom of thought by pretending to be dead. My muteness is a protective cloak.”
It’s an alarming assertion, but one supported by reality. Beijing Coma is a sprawling, masterful novel with dozens of characters, but it is only silent, enfeebled Dai Wei who seems able to express himself completely. He knows that if he ever awakens, the police will imprison him for his actions at the Tiananmen Square protests. His mother, who is also his chief caretaker, is forbidden from acquiring proper medical treatment for her son because the government refuses to acknowledge that any violence occurred during the protests. Thus, Dai Wei’s paradoxical predicament contains Kafkaesque shades, but it also unravels and reshapes our conventional ideas about the nature of freedom.
Like the nameless main character in Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Dai Wei must choose between a constricted life in the physical world and an unfettered existence trapped inside his own consciousness. If he opts for psychological freedom, he also has to forsake his friends and family, meaning the only companion left to him will be his memories.
Dai Wei’s stark choice serves as a condemnation of China’s totalitarian rulers, but Ma Jian never sermonizes. Beijing Coma is about politics, but it’s also a book about love, memory and the frail ideals of youth. China’s Communist leaders have destroyed Dai Wei’s life, severed him from his love Tian Yi, and invaded every cranny of his recollections. Yet, with a thorough understanding of the comedic values of irony, Ma Jian avoids morbidity. Even as Dai Wei’s body and principles fail him, his memories and imagination have the power to sustain his mind. He lives in the recreation of his past. Creativity and art have a reproductive power even the most fascist state can’t obliterate.
Dai Wei’s memories guide Beijing Coma’s narrative and are framed by Ma Jian’s beautifully metaphoric writing. As Dai Wei comes to realize that his memories are biased reproductions of how he’d like to look back on his life, he states that his “memories are like old tapes that have been recorded over in so many places that the original track has become incomprehensible.” Dai Wei must survive on his untrustworthy memories and words. But Ma Jian’s vibrant language, translated nicely by Flora Drew, carries the work and makes what could have been a gimmick—a main character in a coma—the symbolic core of a masterpiece.
Dai Wei spends the novel trying to get back to the moment of his birth in a dingy hospital corridor. We return to Dai Wei’s impoverished childhood, learning how his violinist father’s early death resulted from an extensive term at a detention camp after being labeled a “rightist.” We venture through revolting accounts of the Chinese government’s brutality: fetuses gouged from their mothers’ wombs in order to comply with China’s one-child policy; political prisoners, like Dai Wei’s father, so deprived of food they resort to cannibalism and eating feces; a man forced to kill his own father to prove his revolutionary fervor; victims’ families required to pay for the bullets that killed their children.
As appalling as these scenes are, Ma Jian shows how the government’s subtler intrusions into the lives of its citizens can be just as insidious as overtly violent acts. At one point during the student inhabitation of Tiananmen Square, Dai Wei’s girlfriend, Tian Yi, tells him, “Mao destroyed the traditional family system so that we’d all have to depend on the Party. . . We’re a generation of orphans.”
We get a vivid glimpse of this within Dai Wei’s own family: as a child, Dai Wei loathed his father for going against the government. Only later, once his father is dead and Dai Wei suffers at the hands of the Communists himself, does he understand the societal rupture Maoism has caused. As was true in Communist East Germany and the U.S.S.R., the Chinese Communists worked to corrode the trust between people by hiring hordes of undercover informants. But as communal trust dissolves, so too does Chinese society itself.
Yet, while he is harshest on the Communist leaders, Ma Jian doesn’t romanticize the student protestors either. Initially Dai Wei describes the student activists as “mythical creatures,” but recalling the petty jealousies and power plays that besieged and corrupted the movement internally, he declares a few paragraphs later that “the restless, sweaty bodies [of the students] below us suddenly resembled maggots wriggling over a lump of meat.” Because the author depicts the students with such a stern, unflinching eye, their tragic fate at the hands of the government reverberates even more forcefully.
In 1989, after having traveled throughout the nation as a dissident writer, Ma Jian returned to Beijing to support the student activists in Tiananmen Square. While he was not present when the violence broke out, he draws on his experiences to render a captivating and harrowingly stunning look at the individuals behind history. The political is personal to these young students who want change because they want to be able to pursue their lives and loves unimpeded.
Perhaps even more importantly, Ma Jian lets us witness the lives of the protestors after Tiananmen. Dai Wei’s individual struggle serves as an affectingly trenchant metaphor for 21st-century China. By the novel’s close, as the government begins to ready the nation for the Olympic games, tenements are replaced by modern apartments and Dai Wei’s former student activist cohorts who aren’t in prison choose swollen bank accounts over democracy. No one discusses Tiananmen anymore. Yet, Ma Jian questions whether the glitzy renovations signal true progress. China may be awakening economically, but have cell phones and cars lulled Chinese citizens into forsaking their desire for freedom? The 2008 Olympics may help to open up China to the outside world, but Beijing Coma reminds us that political stasis is far more common than revolutionary change.
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