Book Review – Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
It’s fitting that I’ve been reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma during the Olympic Games. So fitting that the protagonist and his mother’s apartment tower ends up being demolished to make way for the construction of the Beijing’s National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. But more on that later. Ma is the author of the outstanding travel narrative Red Dust, the short novel The Noodle Maker and the book of stories Stick Out Your Tongue. Only Red Dust can claim to be as important a book as this one, but ultimately Beijing Coma will probably be regarded as Ma’s masterwork.
At 584 pages in length, Beijing Coma is an imposing read. The novel’s main subject is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, an event which is now unspeakable in China. Needless to say, Ma has long since fled China for the comparatively benign world of London. This event is described in exhaustive detail. What we get is literally hundreds of pages leading up to the ‘crackdown’ that those of us in the West remember best through the image of the unknown ‘Tank Man’ defiantly standing against the oncoming tanks. For those of you too young to remember this, here it is:
Beijing Coma is about a young man called Dai Wei who takes part in the student democracy movement in the months and years leading up to June 4 1989. The book is split into two narratives, both of which are told from Dai Wei’s point of view. The first narrative describes Dai Wei’s childhood and university life leading up to his near fatal shooting on the night of June 4. In the second narrative, which is interweaved with the first, we learn that Dai Wei was shot in the head and is now completely paralyzed. He can hear what is going on around him, but he can’t move a muscle or give the slightest indication that he can understand what people are saying.
I want to discuss some of the problems I had with this novel before I go on to talk about its outstanding qualities. Firstly, the book is long, possibly overly so. To make matters worse, there are no chapters. The novel is punctuated with short italicized passages which usually (but not always) indicate a shift between the two narratives. These short statements are often only obliquely relevant to the main story, and they often use medical terminology. An example from page 118:
“Cortisol seeps into your cells, filling them with sadness and causing your memories of her to ferment.”
Some of these statements are quite poetic, but a great many are pedestrian or even vaguely annoying. The lack of chapters is a significant but not insurmountable hurdle for the reader. Another hurdle is the fact that Beijing Coma sags very heavily in the middle. The problem, to my mind, is that much of what Ma Jian is trying to detail isn’t overly interesting in itself. While it is true that the novel pays off in the final hundred pages or so, many readers will probably give up after two or three hundred pages. Ma’s attention to detail is such that we get pages and pages of fairly insignificant conversation between young men and women who will later become the central figures in the student democracy movement. Worse, the story of Dai Wei’s life after his shooting only becomes interesting toward the end of the novel, and as such I found the first half of the book something of a chore to read. A third hurdle is the fact that Beijing Coma appears to lack an overall shape or drive. Perhaps this comes in part from the fact that we know that Dai Wei will end up being shot and falling into a decade-long coma. Upon approaching the end, I discovered that the book did have a shape after all, but it only ‘paid off’ for this reader in the final hundred pages. My final complaint is that Ma’s writing is, for the most part, devoid of what I might call ‘poetic flourish.’ Perhaps this comes from the translation, but I didn’t feel emotionally drawn into the story until the second half.
Having pointed out some of the book’s potential flaws (at least for the impatient and less careful readers among us – myself included), let me reiterate my belief that Beijing Coma is a tremendously important book. I hesitate to use the word ‘novel,’ for this reads more like journalism than fiction. Ma Jian has said that he considers himself to be a realist, and that his mission as a writer is to describe the people and events he sees around him. In this, Beijing Coma is a success. This is an insider account of the student movement that was so barbarically purged in Tiananmen Square, one so detailed that one can’t help but imagine that Ma Jian himself witnessed the terrible events he is describing. Most of the book is taken up with conversations between members of the student movement. The main characters are too numerous to mention, and it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose for me to try to outline their qualities here. Meanwhile, the second narrative is taken up exclusively with conversations and Dai Wei’s thoughts and reminiscences. This might be unique in fiction; it’s certainly unique in my reading experience – a protagonist who can’t move, speak or open his eyes.
This second narrative starts fairly slowly, as I’ve said. The reader is left to wonder whether Dai Wei will eventually wake from his coma. Meanwhile, he overhears conversations, many of which involve friends who come to see him in the aftermath of the purge. If Dai Wei ever wakes up he is to be arrested by the Communist authorities, so he is pretty much doomed. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that this second narrative seems to lack an escape route or goal. This seems to be Ma’s point here, but it’s a little hard on the reader. It wasn’t until page 373 that I encountered a passage that really seemed to resonate with me. I reproduce it here in full:
“My mother’s always forgetting to turn on the radio. The silence is a torment because it forces me to recognise that I am lying motionless on an iron bed. Whenever I contemplate this truth, I hurriedly return to the streets I used to walk down and try to hide myself in the crowds. After a while, my mind clears, and death shows its face to me. In fact, death has been lurking inside me for years, waiting to strike me down when a disease sends the signal. Most of the time, I pretend not to know it’s there.”
Dai Wei’s body suffers a multitude of atrocities and humiliations over the course of Beijing Coma, including but not limited to: being shot in the head; having one of his kidney’s removed and sold; having his urine sold as a mystical healing liquid (an amusing quote: “I had shingles. My feet were in so much pain, I couldn’t walk. I drank my urine for a week, but nothing happened. But after just one cup of this guy’s urine, I’m completely cured) (p. 427); being screwed by a nurse (Dai Wei likes this – he can still get an erection); having his mouth fucked by a male boarder (he’s not happy about this at all); and finally being virtually abandoned and left to die. As Dai Wei’s body decays, so too does the environment around him, namely the apartment tower that is to be demolished in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and also his mother’s declining mental health. This narrative gets more and more interesting as it progresses, to the point where it begins to the chart the sort of territory that J. G. Ballard made his own in novels like Crash and High-Rise.
Meanwhile, Dai Wei and his friends move inexorably closer to the bloodshed that was to befall them on June 4. There is a sense of inertia, of inevitability. One thing that jumped out at me was that the student protesters had ample opportunity to flee, right up to the point that the tanks started rolling into Tiananmen Square itself, but they found themselves unable to pull themselves away. In various ways, they become martyrs to the doomed democracy movement. One of the main characters, Wang Fei, says it best, years after the Tiananmen Square massacre:
“We’re the ‘Tiananmen Generation’, but no one dares call us that [...] It’s taboo. We’ve been crushed and silenced. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books. The economy is developing at a frantic pace. In a few more years the country will be so strong, the government will have nothing to fear, and no need or desire to listen to us. So if we want to change our lives, we must take action now. This is our last chance. The Party is begging the world to give China the Olympics. We must beg the Party to give us basic human rights.” (p 505)
Ultimately, Beijing Coma is a triumph. The two narratives finally reach their bleak and harrowing conclusions, to devastating effect. This is not a lighthearted book or one to be dismissed on the basis of a few stylistic quibbles. This is a powerful, vital story. There’s a great deal I haven’t mentioned in this review, such as the symbolism of the sparrow that adorns the book’s cover, or the significance of Dai Wei’s apartment tower being demolished to pave the way for the Beijing Olympics. The most straightforward thing I can say about this is that if you are interested in Chinese politics or the struggle against tyranny and oppression in China today, then you must read Beijing Coma.