I picked up this book for two reasons: firstly, the name ‘The Middle Kingdom’ (which had the connotation of something Chinese), and second, the outstanding cover, depicting the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. There was no way I wasn’t going to buy the book, based on those two factors. I hadn’t heard of Andrea Barrett, so I did a bit of research and discovered that she was (is) an American writer famous for more recent work than this (published 1991 in the US and not until 2000 in the UK). Barrett was an obscure writer over the course of her first three novels (this is the third), and having read The Middle Kingdom, it’s apparent as to why. More on that a little later.
I loved the beginning of this book, and I loved the fact that it had four sections, but that they weren’t told in chronological order. To be honest, I’m a bit of a sucker for gimmickry of this kind, which perhaps helps to explain why I like David Mitchell’s work (most famously, Cloud Atlas). Part One is a short section set during the Tiananmen Square massacre period in Beijing. Here our American protagonist, Grace, is forced to flee the country with her infant son, Jody. Part One whetted my appetite, and Part Two, set three or so years before Tiananmen, delivered. In Part Two, we learn that Grace is suffering in an unhappy marriage to a scientist named Walter Hoffenmeir, and that she is timid, overweight, and desirous of escape from her pampered but empty life. This she finds in Beijing. Great stuff, I thought: interesting story, full of the flavour of China as told from the perspective of an outsider.
But then Part Three. Part Three. This is where the book fell down for me. I’ll try to explain why. Part One is around 18 pages in length, Part Two is about 75 pages, and Part Three is 110 pages long. In a four part book that weighs in at a trim 280 pages in total, the third part is by far the fattest. Here we are taken back even further to bear witness to Grace’s earlier experiences (1974-86). In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, but in The Middle Kingdom, the technique causes the narrative to sag heavily. All that the third part does is develop the characters of Grace and Walter. That’s it. This section contributes nothing toward the later plot, except in that we understand the motivations of the central characters better. And the material itself is not especially interesting either. It’s mainly about Grace’s various love troubles, spanning two husbands, as well as her weight battles (she tends to binge eat) and various other minor details. Worse, nothing really comes to life in terms of actual events being described in much detail either. It’s a long, long recount and not a particularly interesting one either.
Part Four is better, but by then I was reading to finish, not reading for enjoyment. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the reader knows that Grace will end up leaving Walter and staying in Beijing (we have already witnessed the aftermath of this), robbing the finale of its dramatic potential. This kind of structure can work exceptionally well, but I get the sense that Barrett botched it in The Middle Kingdom. I realise that I haven’t really described the plot of the novel at all, but as I didn’t find it especially interesting, I won’t bother now. Suffice to say that while Barrett showed flashes of brilliance and definite potential, The Middle Kingdom ended up being something of a fizzer. For once, it seems, popular opinion was right in condemning this author to the obscurity she languished in at that time.
I’ll definitely pick up one of her later books if I see one around the place though. I’m open minded about this author. Any suggestions are to her better books would be welcomed.
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.
Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer, due to his outstanding travel narrative, “Red Dust.” Ma is a realist; he has said that it is his intention to depict the lives of the people he sees around him as accurately as possible. But realism is very much out of fashion in Communist China, dangerously so. As such, when “Stick Out Your Tongue” was first published in a Chinese journal in 1987, it was not only banned by the Communist authorities, but a blanket ban was placed upon all of Ma’s future work. Soon after this, Ma moved to Hong Kong and later to London, where he now lives.
At first glance, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about. “Stick Our Your Tongue” is a very short collection of stories about Tibet, so short that they barely justify being published in book form. What we have here is less than 80 pages of actual stories, as well as an interesting Afterword. It gets worse, however, when one realises that the first story in this volume, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” is actually in “Red Dust.” All that’s changed is that the story has been changed from past to present tense, and a couple of references to other characters have been removed. This is disappointing, because what is left is around 50 pages of new material.
The new material depicts a series of disturbing events: an old Tibetan man who raped his own daughter, a Buddhist acolyte who is sexually degraded (in the name of Buddhism) and then left to die on a frozen river. This is disturbing stuff, partly because the material is presently calmly, without attempt to cushion the reader. This is Ma’s strength: he is able to look at the world around him and describe it carefully, even solemnly. But this is hardly pleasant reading. One finishes reading this volume wondering what, if anything, one has learned, other than a reminder of the infinite cruelty of human nature.
Ma’s Afterword, written 18 years after the initial volume was published, discusses the repression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese government. This is of course very topical at the moment, but there’s a strange dislocation between the actual written text of “Stick Out Your Tongue” and the ills Ma suffered as a consequence of having written it. In short, there is nothing overtly political about these stories, except by inference. Ma must have carefully avoided any direct criticism of the Communist authorities in his original text. As such, the Afterword, with its talk of Communist repression, seems out of whack with the rest of the book.
What I am saying here is that Ma Jian is a major writer, but that this is a minor book. “Red Dust” is vital reading for anyone even remotely interested in what has been happening in China in recent decades. “The Noodle Maker,” a ‘novel’ which is in fact a collection of thematically-linked stories, is well worth reading too. But I wouldn’t go out of your way to find “Stick Out Your Tongue” unless you are a Ma completist (he has only published 3 books so far). The good news is that this situation is soon to be rectified. Ma’s magnum opus (at nearly 600 pages) is his new novel, “Beijing Coma,” which is due to be released in around a month’s time. I am hoping that it will confirm my suspicion that Ma Jian is one of the most important Chinese writers of his generation.
While I procrastinate about producing essays on my favourite ten novels, I thought I’d start a series of short pieces about some writers you might not have read or even heard about. These are writers who I consider, for one reason or another, to be less famous than they deserve to be. The first such writer is Ma Jian. Born in Qingdao (Tsingtao, as in the beer), China, Ma was a self-proclaimed free-thinker and dissident who attracted the ire of the Communist authorities during the 1980s. He wrote an account of his travels around China entitled “Red Dust: A Path through China.” This fascinating book is basically a travel narrative of Ma’s journey through China in the 1980s. I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ China, as opposed to the veneer of propaganda you are likely to receive from the Communist authorities, especially in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. “Red Dust” was first published in English in 2001, but Vintage Books put out a new edition in 2006 as part of their Vintage East series. This series, which also includes gems by important Chinese writers such as Xinran and Ha Jin, should be widely available and modestly priced at around Aus $14.95
Ma Jian has also published a couple of other books in English, but at the moment they seem to be less widely available than “Red Dust.” Ma’s first novel, “The Noodle Maker,” was originally published in Hong Kong in 1991, but was only released in English in 2004. Incidentally, the translator of Ma Jian’s works is his partner Flora Drew, whom he apparently now lives with in Britain. There have been a couple of editions of “The Noodle Maker,” both in the US and UK. “The Noodle Maker” can in fact only loosely be termed a novel; it reads more like a collection of thematically linked short stories. Ma is a realist; he has expressed a desire to write about the lives of people he sees around him. As these stories are set in China in the late 1980s, Ma Jian’s realism is highly appreciated, as they offer an insight into the trials of everyday people in China at that time. I suspect that “The Noodle Maker” isn’t for everyone, as the stories within are harrowing in the extreme, but the book does offer a fascinating insight into the generation of Chinese affected by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
Ma Jian’s only other book in English at this time is “Stick Out Your Tongue,” a slender collection of stories set in Tibet. I am yet to read this book, except for the first chapter which can be read on Amazon.com. However, I did notice that there seems to be some overlap between the final section of “Red Dust” and the first chapter of “Stick Out Your Tongue.” It appears that the latter volume picks up pretty much where the former ends.
I am eagerly awaiting the release of Ma’s new novel, “Beijing Coma”, which is due to be released later this year. From the brief snippet I’ve read about it, “Beijing Coma” appears to be about a man who goes into a coma in the 1980s and wakes up in the 2000s to find that the world is more brutal than the world of his dreams. I can’t wait to read it.