By Ava Chin In Ma Jian’s virtuosic novel “Beijing Coma,” we are locked inside the head of Dai Wei—coma victim and student casualty of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Positioned between the tragedy of Tiananmen and China’s rising economic prominence—exemplified here by preparations for the Beijing Olympics—the narrative finds a comatose Dai Wei, after taking a bullet to the head from a soldier the night of June 4th, 1989, flashing back upon his life. Growing up as the son of a “rightest”—a lead violinist in National Opera Company, who under Mao’s Cultural Revolution was imprisoned in a forced labor camp and experiencing countless acts of torture—Dai Wei and his family must constantly negotiate the watchful eye of the Peoples’ Party and its army of corrupt and controlling police that punish children for possessing the wrong kind of literature and encourage citizens to inform on each other.
Later, as a biology student at the prestigious Beijing University (the Harvard of China), Dai Wei becomes a leader in charge of security during the student democracy movement. Here, Ma Jian skillfully illustrates the rising sense of hope and desire for change among the earnest, at times squabbling students—children who grew up in the wake of the Cultural Revolution—as they attempt to organize and convene on Tiananmen Square. But the events that unfold changes all of the characters lives, and a soldier’s bullet lands Dai Wei straight into an iron-bed at his mother’s apartment. The major bulk of Dai Wei’s memories—his Beijing childhood with an artistic, intellectual father in the labor camps, the various women Dai Wei loved, and the events of the student democracy movement of 1989—are intercut with a present-time narrative where his mother, care-taker and member of the persecuted Falun Gong, sells his urine and one of his kidneys to pay for his medical expenses, student friends who have moved on to become businesspeople visit with less frequency, and the very building in which they live is slated for demolition to make way for the Olympics. Though comatose, Dai Wei is alert, aware of his surroundings, and shifting through memories. Throughout the narrative, a tour-de-force that leaves you feeling kicked in the stomach—and more than happy to continue reading on the floor—Ma Jian weaves love, despair, and acts of desperation under the threat of death. It’d be a difficult pill to swallow, if not for the sheer poetry of Ma Jian’s prose: “Your mouth is a locked door without a key,” and “Your body is a felled tree, decaying on the ground.” Ma Jian, who lives in exile in London, has created a tightly woven, incisive narrative that is, like most images and commentary on the Tiananmen Massacre, banned in China. This is the 20th anniversary of the tragedy where thousands of students and workers were crushed under government tanks and gunfire, but the newest generation of Beijing University students know little about the events spear-headed by their predecessors. The comatose but very much alive Dai Wei stands in for the Chinese citizenry, witnesses to the changing tides of martial law and economic forces but ultimately left with few alternatives. Some flee, some join the capitalist bandwagon, others practice an outlaw mixture of New Age-y chigong. In “Beijing Coma,” ordinary people like Dai Wei and his mother are posited in the center, refusing to leave—for where is there for them to go?—even as the bulldozers approach, ripping up trees and pavement, readying the way for Olympic stadiums and Bird’s Nests.