BEIJING COMA by Ma Jiantranslated by Flora Drew Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008 , 592 pages $27.50
With this year’s Olympic games being held in Beijing, China’s past and present human rights violations have become front-page news again. Perhaps the last time the world paid as much attention to Beijing was in 1989, when a student protest in Tiananmen Square calling for democracy was quelled by excessive military force in front of foreign journalists. The events that led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the fallout in the years to come are explored in this engaging novel by Chinese dissident Ma Jian through the life of his fictional student leader Dai Wei The book opens with Dai Wei lying in a coma after being shot by a soldier during the massacre. In and out of consciousness, he stretches through his memories. As a boy, his father was locked away in a “reform-through-labor-camp” during the infamous Cultural Revolution. The political tensions of the country were mirrored in his own household, as Dai Wei observed arguments between his free-thinking, Western-educated father and his toe-the-Communist-Party-line mother. Many incidents in Beijing Coma paint the Cultural Revolution as a time of paranoid violence where neighbors turned on neighbors. Dai Wei is witness to an elderly woman set on fire in the streets, and learns that a young girl his father knows has been raped, killed, and mutilated because her parents are rich. He reads his father’s journals which speak of starvation and abuse within the labor camps. At the age of fifteen, Dai Wei is arrested and beaten by police for copying Western erotic literature and for natural, age-appropriate sexual experimentation with his girlfriend. Dai Wei knows he will spend his life at odds with the government simply for being his father’s son. As a young man at the University, Dai Wei falls in with a group of students who will eventually become the core of the massive protests in Tiananmen Square. Athletic Dai Wei is assigned “head of security.” Between hunger strikes, protests, and meetings with police and government officials, he is still a typical young man: alternately horny and hungry. Dai Wei’s physical nature is all the more poignant when inert, lying in a bullet-induced coma. The one minor flaw in this book may be that the student characters all run together, with the possible exception of the noble female figurehead leader of the student protests, Bai Ling, whose fate is to be crushed by a tank. She certainly stands out as the lone fleshed-out female. Though Dai Wei has three love affairs throughout the novel, those girls seem to be interchangeable representations of sexual “femaleness:” capricious and difficult yet vulnerable, mysterious, and alluring. The author moves backward and forward in Dai Wei’s life seamlessly, and he knows the right spots to linger. At Tiananmen Square, he builds the momentum of the student movement and the government’s response in perfect pitch. He uses the power-grabbing and faction-splitting of the student movement to mirror the internal strife of Mao’s government without pulling us away from Dai Wei’s inner circle. The author even places himself in context with a conversation between students about dissident writer Ma Jian whose book, Stick Out Your Tongue, is banned in China. Ma Jian seems to write in real time during the Tiananmen portions of the novel. There is a gritty hyper-realism to these scenes. The further the reader treads into the book, the more Tiananmen Square feels like “home.” In contrast, the interdispersed parts of the book that take place fifteen years later in Dai Wei’s mother’s filthy apartment are dreamily over-the-top. Ma Jian displays a morbid sense of humor with his treatment of Dai Wei’s comatose body. We are to believe that Dai Wei’s hearing and sense of smell is heightened, and though he is quite awake and alert, he simply cannot move. He is subjected to his mother selling his urine to people who drink it believing it to have healing properties, and, when that fails, his mother selling his kidney. He is molested twice: once by an attractive female nurse, then by a male tenant of his mother’s. And a sparrow builds a nest in his armpit. Even in the book’s current time, it seems, oppression is alive and well in China. Dai Wei’s mother, mentally fragile after years of poverty and abuse, finally abandons the Communist party and dabbles in Falun Gong–a religion (some say a cult) whose practitioners are routinely prosecuted by the Chinese government. She is arrested, and returns sometime later, surprised and disappointed to find Dai Wei still clinging to life. Ultimately, her home is destroyed with her and Dai Wei still in it to make room for a shopping center–and, in an ironic twist (spoiler alert!) Dai Wei seems to be coming out of the coma as the building begins to fall in on itself. What Beijing Coma brings to the table in the discussion about China is startling. If the violence at Tiananmen Square was anywhere near the carnage Ma Jian describes, and if the people are still even a portion as kept down as his characters, well, maybe something needs to be done. Maybe the rest of the world shouldn’t be playing games with China.