Dai Wei, the protagonist of Ma Jian’s shaggy and slow-moving novel Beijing Coma, is a man doubly captive. Although he is kept under close observation by the police for his role in the Tiananmen Square student protests of June 4, 1989, Dai Wei is first and foremost a prisoner of his own body: he has been lying in a coma since he was felled by a bullet on the day of the protests. Dai Wei’s mind is still functioning, but his body, which he thinks of as a“fleshy tomb”, is a mere vegetable. The opinion of one of the many doctors who attends to him is that, “Strictly speaking, he isn’t human any more.”
As China is rapidly transformed by economic modernization, and the world-changing ardour of Tiananmen Square recedes from the minds of its citizens, Dai Wei lies in his bedroom, tended to by his mother and occasionally visited by friends. As one of them jokes, Dai Wei, more than any other Chinese citizen, has actualised Chairman Mao’s advice “to remain unchanging in changing circumstances”.
Ma’s novel, a vibrant collage of scenes from Dai Wei’s past and present life, is simultaneously a large-scale portrait of a citizenry writhing 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. It takes its form and even its tone – that of horror mixed with laughter – from the poverty and deprivation of Dai Wei’s condition. Trapped in an unchanging present, Dai Wei wraps himself around all “the tiny details people generally store in the back of their minds and never get a chance to savour again”. He thinks of the three women he has loved, of his favourite books, of food, of walks in the streets.
Ma (whose work was banned in China following the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue, his book of stories about Tibet) allocates a great deal of narrative time to the discussion of politics and the plotting of stratagems by the rebelling students. But his novel is never uninteresting, because he is not a didactic writer. Even when his characters speak of oppression, there is humour and pathos in their words. Indeed one of the pleasures of Beijing Coma is the author’s skill with dialogue. Wheedling citizens, sloganeering students, peremptory officials, whispering lovers, even the protagonist’s silent conversation with himself – all these are expertly rendered.
“What kind of country is it that punishes the victims of a massacre, rather than the people who fired the shots?” cries Dai Wei’s mother. Yet later she is so excited by the arrival of a telephone that she calls up unknown people listed in the telephone directory just to try out her new plaything. In these two kinds of speech – a despairing lament that exposes the corruption and mendacity of an entire social order, and a wholly gratuitous confirmation of connection – lies one of the clues to Ma’s method. Beijing Coma is full of such unruly and oddly moving details.
The great achievement of Ma’s book is the way we are made to experience Dai Wei’s extreme debilitation, his painful limbo in “death’s waiting room”, almost viscerally. Dai Wei’s body is broken up into parts: his mother has to sell one of his kidneys to pay for his medical expenses; his urine is collected for sale to followers of urinotherapy; and to his embarrassment, his penis grows hard whenever anyone touches him. When his ex-girlfriend comes to visit, he breathes in her smells and admits, heartbreakingly, that: “I long for her to touch my hand, then I remember the cadaver that I am.” Dai Wei feels guilty about all the years of trouble his body has given to his mother, and longs for the day when his death serves as both his release and hers.
In one beautiful passage, a sparrow makes Dai Wei’s room its home. The noises it makes as it hops and flies around allow the sightless Dai to form a picture of his surroundings. “Since it arrived, the room seems to have grown much larger,” he exults. Later the sparrow perches on Dai Wei’s chest and is “lulled to sleep by the ticking of my heart”. Bedridden for almost a decade, Dai Wei’s infirm body nevertheless proves capable of supporting the sleep of a sparrow.
As the novel explores the predicament of the comatose protagonist and of a society paralysed by fear and denial, the meanings of its title begin to ramify, suggesting a parallel between Dai Wei’s wretched body and the entire body politic. In the apocalyptic finale, Dai Wei’s apartment block is razed by the government to make room for a stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. The residents leave one by one, leaving only the supine protagonist and his half-crazed mother on stage. The irony of Dai Wei’s exhilarating waking as we leave him, Ma seems to suggest, is that he only rises up from one Beijing coma into another.
And some links to other essays about China or Chinese literature: "On Guy Sorman's Year of the Rooster" (Sorman argues that comparisons of China's growth with that of India are virtually meaningless, for a narrowly quantitative analysis does not reflect "non-economic values which matter like democracy, freedom of religion and respect for life"); "Vaclav Havel, Kang Zhengguo, and prison literature"; and "Lush life in Mo Yan" (Mo Yan is in my opinion as good a novelist as Ma Jian, and one feature common to their work is their interest in the lives of birds and animals).
Indian novelists writing in English are often excoriated by local readers for living abroad and (this is often a vague charge) "trying to pander to the West". The irony of the best contemporary Chinese literature, in contrast, is that it is almost by definition the literature of expatriate writers, writers whose critical spirit has led the Chinese government to persecute them and ban their work ("Mo Yan" is actually a pseudonym that means "Don't Speak", and this is an appropriate symbol of the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party towards writers).
China's economic success has led people in important positions the world over to enthuse about a regime that, for fifty years, has blithely erased or rewritten history, made human fodder of its people, systematically ransacked an ancient civilization and vilified or outlawed many of its highest achievements, suffocated all creative endeavour and everyday speech with doctrine, and made political conformity (which is just another name for hypocrisy) the highest measure by which human action is judged. Strictly speaking, such a regime cannot be considered human either. In the year of the Beijing Olympics, and of the Chinese government on its best behaviour, we need novels like Ma Jian's and memoirs like Kang Zhengguo's to tell us the truth about China.
And some other essays: "Boycott Beijing" by the columnist Anne Applebaum (I must say that I am myself not in favour of such a move); "Does the future really belong to China?", a debate between Will Hutton and the economist Meghnad Desai in Prospect; "Empty Olympic Promises", a recent New York Times editorial; "The World of Mao", by Susan Spano; and "Hammers and drills, concrete and dust", a recent piece by Robert Macfarlane.
Update, July 18: Andrew Nathan's "What the Olympics reveal, and conceal, about China".