The Washington Post
Beijing Coma: A Novelby Ma Jian
Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was struck by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. She allowed pharmacists access to his body and sold his… See more details below
Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was struck by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. She allowed pharmacists access to his body and sold his urine and his left kidney to fund special treatment from Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect. But during a government crackdown, the Master was arrested, and Dai Wai's mother—who had fallen in love with him—lost her mind.
As the millennium draws near, a sparrow flies through the window and lands on Dai Wei's naked chest, a sign that he must emerge from his coma. But China has also undergone a massive transformation while Dai Wei lay unconscious. As he prepares to take leave of his old metal bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is a startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.
At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, racked by contradictions, and a seminal examination of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian's masterpiece. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty, and deep rage, this extraordinary novel confirms his place as one of the world's most significant living writers.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
The outcome of this bleak, wrenching generational saga from Ma Jian (Stick Out Your Tongueand The Noodle Maker) is known from early on: the politicization of Dai Wei, a diligent molecular biology Ph.D. student at Beijing University, ends in Tiananmen Square with a bullet striking him in the head. As the book opens, Dai Wei is just waking from a coma that has continued over 10 years following the June 4, 1989, massacrestill apparently unconscious, but actually aware of his surroundings. The narrative then alternates between Dai Wei's very conscious observations as a nonresponsive "vegetable" over the years of his coma, and his childhood and student life. Ma Jian evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail, particularly in quotidian scenes of his mother's attempts to care for Dai Wei, which eventually lead her to a member of the banned Falun Gong movement. The book's behind-the-scenes portrayal of the nascent student movement hinges on repetitious ideological bickering and sexual power plays. Lengthy expositions of Dai Wei's condition slow the book further, but Ma Jian achieves startling effects through Dai Wei's dispassionate narration, making one man's felled body a symbol of lost possibility. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (his third novel to be translated into English), offers an ambitious retelling of the Tiananmen Square protests. The book also looks back to the abject days of the Cultural Revolution and forward to China's jockeying to host the 2008 Olympics.
What is most striking about Ma's wide-angle approach (besides his understanding of the sociopolitical context that fuelled the protests) is his grasp of crowd dynamics and political waffling. It's his understanding of these two elements that gives the book its aura of eyewitness immediacy. These attributes substantiate for the reader how popular movements are susceptible to rumors, infighting, and an array of intrigues; and also how such happenings can uncover latent qualities in their participants -- whether good or bad -- that an overarching summary is prone to omit. On a more literary level, the novel is enhanced by asides that give it an aesthetic foundation and keep it from reading as a straight-shooting protest novel.
One encounters throughout the book many fine-grain observations like this one by the novel's narrator, Dai Wei, on different students' walking habits: "Students from the countryside, still not accustomed to wearing heavy shoes, took steps that were too large. Students from mountainous regions walked with their knees bent and chests tilted forward, as though climbing a steep slope."
Readers of Faulkner may detect an echo in Beijing Coma's opening sentence ("Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locus tree slowly begin to rise again") with that which begins The Sound and the Fury ("Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting"). As with the mentally disabled character, Benjy, whose consciousness Faulkner takes us inside, the internal monologue that commences Beijing Coma is articulated by one who is profoundly cut off from the world. Unlike Benjy, however, who was born to his condition, Dai Wei was reduced to a mute, vegetative state by a bullet wound to the head, sustained on the night of the government's seizing of Tiananmen Square and its environs. Utterly dependent on his mother -- a former chorus singer for the National Opera Company -- Dai Wei chronicles their lives internally, interpreting the present and reconstructing the past. As is the case with so much of Faulkner's work, it is the past that threatens to engulf the present.
The most wrenching sections of the book, by a fair margin, are those that recall episodes from China's Cultural Revolution. The abiding trait of that era was the suppression of anyone labeled "counterrevolutionary." Because Dai Wei's father -- a onetime principal violinist for the National Opera Company -- was fingered as a "rightist," he was imprisoned in various labor camps for 22 years. The deprivations that he and his companions endured are an affront to the mind. Here is one of the milder incidents that Dai Wei comes across in his father's journal:
There where some dried shreds of sweet potato and pumpkin pulp lying outside the pigpen today. As soon as we spotted them, we pounced on them and stuffed as much as we could into our mouths. The guard on duty was a young man. Nicer than most. At least he didn't beat us. He just sneered and said, "That's disgusting! And you call yourselves intellectuals!..."
If there is an albatross to Beijing Coma's narrative equilibrium, it is that the descriptions of the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution, which occur early on in this almost 600-page novel, are so unsettling they almost upend the rest of the book's momentum. Yet while the prolapsed descriptions of the activities that take place in the Square, at times, lack the dramatic force of the stories about China's political purges, the same is not true with respect to the depiction of Dai Wei's mother, Chen Huizhen's plight to care for her son.
Chen Huizhen's journey from being an apologist for the Communist regime to becoming openly critical of her government makes for riveting reading. Because of her husband's condemnation as a "rightist," Chen Huizhen was compelled to give birth to Dai Wei in a hospital corridor without medical assistance. Nonetheless, she holds faith with the ruling party's ideology throughout her husband's ordeal while enduring diminished career prospects. In fact, she goes so far as to visit "the university's Party committee office" near the start of the protests to let it be known that she does not support the actions of her son "and that she would support any action the government chose to take."
Gradually, this patriotic fervor is drained away. In part this is due to the burdens of having to negotiate back-channel medical treatments for her son, whom most doctors fear to treat, and to continual harassment by the local police, who are tasked with making sure that victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdowns -- and their families -- refrain from describing their ordeals in public.
To counterbalance the pressures of having to fend for her son, Chen Huizhen takes up Falun Gong. This leads to her undoing. Soon after the government decrees that practitioners of Falun Gong should be treated as social pariahs, she is arrested and made to inform on her peers. Dai Wei's descriptions of his body's deterioration during his mother's incarceration and his account of his mother's frayed sanity following her release are heartrending:
My mother doesn't bother to speak to me. She's come to the conclusion that I'm incapable of reacting to outside stimuli. I'm not sure if I'm able to react to internal stimuli any more either. My body chemistry no longer seems to respond to my emotional moods. If plants were capable of having thoughts, I wonder if they'd be able to sense the sadness of their roots and branches.
Though Beijing Coma is a serious novel about the travails of living in a totalitarian society, it is not unrelentingly dour. Ma deposits many gems of love, compassion, and goodness into his work, making the resilience of his characters all the more visible. (For example, though Chen Huizhen smarts beneath the ostracism of her neighbors, she is visited by Dai Wei's classmates even though an improvement in condition seems unlikely.) This humane work -- by a novelist whose future appearance on a Nobel Prize shortlist would be unsurprising -- merits the interest of any who are interested in the liberation of the captive mind. --Christopher Byrd
Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in publications such as The American Prospect, The Believer, Guardian America, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wilson Quarterly.
— Tash Aw, Daily Telegraph
"Epic in scope but intimate in feeling … magnificent"
— Tom Deveson, The Times
"Simultaneously a large-scale portrait of citizens writing in the grip of the party and the state and a strikingly intimate study of the fragility of the body and the persistence of self and memory"
— Chandrahas Choudhury, Observer
“[Beijing Coma] merits the term ‘masterpiece’. . . . [T]he narrative strategy succeeds at creating suspense page after page and lends a poignant, inexorable flavour to the events after the massacre.”
— The Vancouver Sun
“A work of fiction so realistic that it can be read as a tragic memoir of a time of hope, turmoil and atrocity. . . . An immaculate lesson in history, it is a vivid reminder that all things change and all is swept away.”
— The Owen Sound Sun Times
“Already notorious for writing novels banned in his homeland due to their criticism of China's policies on human rights and Tibet, the now London-based Ma Jian here launches his most sustained and intricate indictment of his former country. . . . As novelist, he painstakingly recreates the cycle of idealism, arrogance, confusion and despair that characterized the experience of demonstrators on the ground in [Tiananmen] square.”
— Toronto Star
“[Beijing Coma] will make waves across the world. . . . Ma combines a gift for densely detailed, panoramic fiction with a resonant prophetic voice. . . . Beijing Coma may have huge documentary value, but it grips and moves as epic fiction above all . . . Beijing Coma has the visceral physicality that stamps all of Ma Jian's work. He is a poet of the body in all its ecstasies, embarrassments and agonies.”
— The Independant
“A huge achievement . . . a landmark account through fiction of a country whose rise has amazed the world, but which remains cloaked in shadows. . . . finely written and translated.”
— The Times
“This is an epic yet intimate work that deserves to be recognised and to endure as the great Tiananmen novel.”
— Financial Times
“This timely yet dazzling piece of fiction will be seen simply for what it is: a modern literary masterpiece.”
— Sunday Express
“This vivid, pungent, often blackly funny book is a mighty gesture of remembrance against the encroaching forces of silence.”
“Astonishingly brave… the most important Chinese book since Wild Swans.”
— London Lite
“[A] bleak, wrenching generational saga . . . Ma Jian achieves startling effects through Dai Wei’s dispassionate narration, making one man’s felled body a symbol of lost possibility.”
— Publishers Weekly
“One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.”
— Gao Xingjian, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“Ma Jian is arguably his country’s essential writer.”
— The Globe and Mail
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Read an Excerpt
Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you’re going to have to take your life seriously.
You reach for a pillow and tuck it under your shoulders, propping up your head so that the blood in your brain can flow back down into your heart, allowing your thoughts to clear a little. Your mother used to prop you up like that from time to time.
Silvery mornings are always filled with new intentions. But today is the first day of the new millennium, so the dawn is thicker with them than ever. Although the winter frosts haven’t set in yet, the soft breeze blowing on your face feels very cold.
A smell of urine still hangs in the room. It seeps from your pores when the sunlight falls on your skin.
You gaze outside. The morning air isn’t rising from the ground as it did yesterday. Instead, it’s falling from the sky onto the treetops, then moving slowly through the leaves, brushing past the bloodstained letter caught in the branches, absorbing moisture as it falls.
Before the sparrow arrived, you had almost stopped thinking about flight. Then, last winter, it soared through the sky and landed in front of you, or more precisely on the windowsill of the covered balcony adjoining your bedroom. You knew the grimy windowpanes were caked with dead ants and dust, and smelt as sour as the curtains. But the sparrow wasn’t put off. It jumped inside the covered balcony and ruffled its feathers, releasing a sweet smell of tree bark into the air. Then it flew into your bedroom, landed on your chest and stayed there like a cold egg.
Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles of your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears. Saliva drips onto the soft palate at the back of your mouth. A reflex is triggered, and the palate rises, closing off the nasal passage and allowing the saliva to flow into your pharynx. The muscles of the oesophagus, which have been dormant for so many years, contract, projecting the saliva down into your stomach. A bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex, down the spinal cord to a muscle fibre at the tip of your finger.
You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning.
‘Waa, waaah . . .’
A baby’s choked cry cuts through the fetid air. A tiny naked body seems to be trembling on a cold concrete floor . . . It’s me. I’ve crawled out between my mother’s legs, my head splitting with pain. I bat my hand in the pool of blood that gathers around me . . . My mother often recounted how she was forced to wear a shirt embroidered with the words wife of a rightist when she gave birth to me. The doctor on duty didn’t dare offer to help bring this ‘son of a capitalist dog’ into the world. Fortunately, my mother passed out after her waters broke, so she didn’t feel any pain when I pushed myself out into the hospital corridor.
And now, all these years later, I, too, am lying unconscious in a hospital. Only the occasional sound of glass injection ampoules being snapped open tells me that I’m still alive.
Yes, it’s me. My mother’s eldest son. The eyes of a buried frog flash through my mind. It’s still alive. It was I who trapped it in the jar and buried it in the earth . . . The dark corridor outside is very long. At the end of it is the operating room, where bodies are handled like mere heaps of flesh . . . And the girl I see now – what’s her name? A-Mei. She’s walking towards me, just a white silhouette. She has no smell. Her lips are trembling.
I’m lying on a hospital bed, just as my father did before he died. I’m Dai Wei – the seed that he left behind. Am I beginning to remember things? I must be alive, then. Or perhaps I’m fading away, flitting, one last time, through the ruins of my past. No, I can’t be dead. I can hear noises. Death is silent.
‘He’s just pretending to be dead . . .’ my mother mumbles to someone. ‘I can’t eat this pak choi. It’s full of sand.’
It’s me she’s talking about. I hear a noise close to my ear. It’s somebody’s colon rumbling.
Where’s my mouth? My face? I can see a yellow blur before my eyes, but can’t smell anything yet. I hear a baby crying somewhere in the distance and occasionally a thermos flask being filled with hot water.
The yellow light splinters. Perhaps a bird just flew across the sky. I sense that I’m waking from a long sleep. Everything sounds new and unfamiliar.
What happened to me? I see Tian Yi and me hand in hand, running for our lives. Is that a memory? Did it really happen? Tanks roll towards us. There are fires burning everywhere, and the sound of screaming . . .And what about now? Did I pass out when the tanks rolled towards me? Is this still the same day?
When my father was lying in hospital waiting to die, the stench of dirty sheets and rotten orange peel was sometimes strong enough to mask the pervasive smell of rusty metal beds. When the evening sky blocked up the window, the filthy curtains merged into the golden sunlight and the room became slightly more transparent, and enabled me at least to sense that my father was still alive . . . On that last afternoon, I didn’t dare look at him. I turned instead to the window, and stared at the red slogan raise the glorious red flag of Marxism and struggle boldly onwards hanging on the roof of the hospital building behind, and at the small strip of sky above it . . .
During those last days of his life, my father talked about the three years he spent as a music student in America. He mentioned a girl from California whom he’d met when he was there. She was called Flora, which means flower in Latin. He said that when she played the violin, she would look down at the floor and he could gaze at her long eyelashes. She’d promised to visit him in Beijing after she left college. But by the time she graduated, China had become a communist country, and no foreigners were allowed inside.
I remember the black, rotten molar at the side of his mouth. While he spoke to us in hospital, he’d stroke his cotton sheet and the urinary catheter inserted into his abdomen underneath.
‘Technically speaking, he’s a vegetable,’ says a nurse to my right. ‘But at least the IV fluid is still entering his vein. That’s a good sign.’ She seems to be speaking through a face mask and tearing a piece of muslin. The noises vibrate through me, and for a moment I gain a vague sense of the size and weight of my body.
If I’m a vegetable, I must have been lying here unconscious for sometime. So, am I waking up now?
My father comes into view again. His face is so blurred, it looks as though I’m seeing it through a wire mesh. My father was also attached to an intravenous drip when he breathed his last breath. His left eyeball reflected like a windowpane the roof of the hospital building behind, a slant of sky and a few branches of a tree. If I were to die now, my closed eyes wouldn’t reflect a thing. Perhaps I only have a few minutes left to live, and this is just a momentary recovery of consciousness before death.
‘Huh! I’m probably wasting my time here. He’s never going to wakeup.’ My mother’s voice sounds both near and far away. It floats through the air. Maybe this is how noises sounded to my father just before he died.
In those last few moments of his life, the oxygen mask on his face and the plastic tube inserted into his nose looked superfluous. Had the nurses not been regularly removing the phlegm from his throat, or pouring milk into his stomach through a rubber feeding tube, he would have died on that metal bed weeks before. Just as he was about to pass away, I sensed his eyes focus on me. I was tugging my brother’s shirt. The cake crumbs in his hands scattered onto my father’s sheet. He was trying to climb onto my father’s bed. The key hanging from his neck clunked against the metal bed frame. I yanked the strap of his leather satchel with such force that it snapped in half.
‘Get down!’ my mother shouted, her eyes red with fury. My brother burst into tears. I fell silent.
A second later, my father sank into the cage of medical equipment surrounding him and entered my memory. Life and death had converged inside his body. It had all seemed so simple.
‘He’s gone,’ the nurse said, without taking off her face mask. With the tip of her shoe, she flicked aside the discarded chopsticks and cotton wool she’d used to clear his phlegm, then told my mother to go to reception and complete the required formalities. If his body wasn’t taken to the mortuary before midnight, my mother would be charged another night for the hospital room. Director Guo, the personnel officer of the opera company my parents belonged to, advised my mother to apply for my father’s posthumous political rehabilitation, pointing out thatthe compensation money could help cover the hospital fees.
My father stopped breathing and became a corpse. His body lay on the bed, as large as before. I stood beside him, with his watch on my wrist.
After the cremation, my mother stood at the bus stop cradling the box of ashes in her arms and said, ‘Your father’s last words were that he wanted his ashes buried in America. That rightist! Even at the point of death he refused to repent.’ As our bus approached, she cried out, ‘At least from now on we won’t have to live in a constant state of fear!’
She placed the box of ashes under her iron bed. Before I went to sleep, I’d often pull it out and take a peek inside. The more afraid I grew of the ashes, the more I wanted to gaze at them. My mother said that if a friend of hers were to leave China, she’d give them the box and ask them to bury it abroad so that my father’s spirit could rise into a foreign heaven.
‘You must go and study abroad, my son,’ my father often repeated tome when he was in hospital.
So, I’m still alive . . . I may be lying in hospital, but at least I’m not dead. I’ve just been buried alive inside my body . . . I remember the day I caught that frog. Our teacher had told us to catch one so that we could later study their skeletons. After I caught my frog, I put it in a glass jar, pierced a hole in the metal cap, then buried it in the earth. Our teacher told us that worms and ants would crawl inside and eat away all the flesh within a month, leaving a clean skeleton behind. I bought some alcohol solution, ready to wipe off any scraps of flesh still remaining on the bones. But before the month was out, a family living on the ground floor of our building built a kitchen over the hole where I’d buried it.
The frog must have become a skeleton years ago. While its bones lie trapped in the jar, I lie buried inside my body, waiting to die.
Excerpted from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Copyright © 2008 by Ma Jian. Translation copyright © 2008 by Flora Drew. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender's apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and traveled for three years across China. In 1987 he completed Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his future work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but he continued to travel to China, and he supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives.
Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender’s apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and traveled for three years across China. In 1987 he completed Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his future work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but he continued to travel to China, and he supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives.
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The most striking feature about Beijing Coma is that Ma Jian incorporates factual and recent events into this epic novel about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, subsequently blurring the lines between fiction and reality. This book connects history with the present, as the characters of Beijing Coma struggle through various forms of political and religious oppression--from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and forced evictions of middle class homeowners in Beijing's hutong district of this decade. It is a very heartbreaking, intimate, and poignant novel, and although it is quite lengthy, it is definitely worth an ardent reader's time and consideration.
a very captivating and powerful look at communist china, the cultural revolution, the student movement in 1989. engaging characters weave their way through historical events. very illuminating especially in light of the fact that americans tend to learn precious little of events in asia regardless of how significant they are. i recommend this book.
Ma Jian's Beijing Coma was a really enlightening novel. I learned so much about China- the good and the bad. This novel exposed me for the first time to the horrifying Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre- really important events that no one bothered to teach in high school history. What you find in this book will alternatively inspire and infuriate you, and at no time will Ma Jian leave you feeling apathetic. The writing in this novel is unique. The narration is delivered with a certain sparsity and emotionless quality, but is occasionally punctuated with incredibly poignant and striking images and revelations that take you aback and force you to pause and reflect. The novel reminds me a bit of the fiction of Sartre and Camus, but with distinguishing elements that are Ma Jian's own. In any case, the novel is brilliant. Read it. It is an accessible opportunity to experience the richness of another culture's literature.