Ma Jian is one of China's most notable contemporary authors; and, like most of China's notable authors, he's been living overseas for many years because his books displease the Chinese government. The reasons for this displeasure can seem a little baffling, since the early books that got him into trouble - a collection of Gorkyesque short stories about life in Tibet called Stick Out Your Tongue, and the travelogue Red Dust, often dubbed China's On The Road (both books that I enjoyed) - seem pretty innocuous to a foreigner. I saw him speak at a foreign bookstore in Beijing a couple of years ago, although he didn't leave any very vivid impression on me. I fear I won't now have the chance to see him in China again, because with this latest novel he's really gone all out to press all of the Communist Party's hot buttons at once.
The protagonist here, a young Beijinger called Dai Wei, was a graduate student at Peking University (one of the only institutions that still uses the older romanization of the capital's name) in the late '80s, and became caught up in the 1989 student protest movement which led to the 'Tiananmen Square massacre' of June 4th (the Chinese invariably prefer the euphemism 'military crackdown'; and the conventional Western description of the event tends to mislead, since most of the killings did not happen on the Square itself, but did continue for some days after the night of June 3rd/4th and did encompass other protests in many other parts of China, as well as several different venues across Beijing). Though a diffident young man, who does not have the urge for power that characterizes the other student leaders, Dai Wei, through his friendship with some of the key figures in the movement, becomes a major player himself and assumes the role of 'Director of Security', organising the teams of student marshals who attempt to keep order amongst the vast crowds gathering on the Square. When the People's Liberation Army sweeps into the city to break up the protests, Dai Wei becomes one of its victims, receiving a bullet wound in the head that leaves him in a coma.
Although apparently reduced to a permanent vegetative state, Dai Wei remains fully conscious of his surroundings, and indeed develops a heightened awareness of sound and smell (a rather terrifying possibility, though I have never heard of such a thing, and suspect that, if it happens at all, it is an extremely rare phenomenon). While trapped in the prison of his decaying body like this year after year, he endlessly reviews his memories. Thus, the main part of the book comprises his life story up until the moment he is shot. This account alternates with passages about what he experiences in the 'present', during his coma state, and these are mainly concerned with his mother's struggles to care for him and to try to find a 'cure', although they do also encompass occasional visits and phone calls from his old student activist friends which keep us updated on their lives and on China's development during the 1990s. These two strands are regularly interspersed - though not usefully separated - by frequent single-sentence or short-paragraph epigrams, metaphors, and jumbled quotations from Dai Wei's favourite book, a classic ancient anthology of Chinese myths called The Book Of Seas And Mountains; these seem to represent Dai Wei's more disordered thoughts as he lapses into fever or slides closer to death.
I really wanted to like this book: it's an important subject that hasn't, to my knowledge, really been dealt with before (although you can find on the Internet a novel about the events of 1989 by a Matt Donath - still unpublished, I assume - called A Few Flies Get In; I read several excerpts from it during one of the brief periods when the links to it were not blocked by the Chinese censors, but it's now lost to me again). And, as I said above, I have quite liked some of Ma Jian's earlier writing.
Unfortunately, there are two major problems here: the book is a sprawling, undisciplined mess; and the writing is just abysmal.
Beijing Coma is nearly 600 pages long. OK, this is a large format paperback, so there aren't that many words per page - but it is still way, way too long. It could, with advantage, be trimmed by at least 30-40%, perhaps even 60%. You really need a lot of passion for the subject to plough through this much empty verbiage; and for anyone who's curious but daunted, I would recommend omitting the first half of the book completely and skimming the second half, just reading those sections about events in the Square in May and June.
I find that this is a fairly common problem with Chinese writers (and perhaps with many writers translated from other languages - I don't know). It seems they are treated with too much reverence by their publishers, or that the mediation of the translator frees them from the strict control of an editor. It probably doesn't help here that Ma's translator is his wife, Flora Drew. Somebody really needed to tell him that this novel was massively self-indulgent and needed to be radically trimmed. There is no need at all to tell the whole of Dai Wei's life story (I suspect that Ma just had a lot of autobiographical sketches lying around that he wanted to get published somehow); in particular, the long account of his major undergraduate love affair and his frequent reminiscences about it during the Tiananmen days are tedious and pointless. The coma sections of the book could at least be drastically pruned (many of the accounts of the different treatments his mother tries out for him are rather repetitive, and seem to jumble the timeline). And the endless 'epigrams' - often seemingly just an excuse for the author to show off the arcane medical knowledge he has gleaned from his research, as he crafts obscure metaphors around bodily function at the cellular level - are just excruciatingly crass. And there are so many of them: really, there's one - sometimes more than one - on almost every page, so there are some hundreds of them in total.
The minute observation of the world around the coma patient is stultifying in its irrelevance and repetition as well. It is almost as though Ma wants his reader to suffer the same tedium of decade-long immobility that his protagonist does. On p. 401 our inert narrator comments, as he overhears yet another (significance-free) fragment of a distant radio or TV show, "I'm fed up with these banal details burrowing their way into my brain." Quite so. After boring his reader to the point of coma for several hours, it's really not a good idea for an author to thus remind him of this. I question whether the conceit of the coma is necessary or useful at all. Yes, it provides an opportunity to survey how China has moved on (or not) since 1989. And I suppose it can be seen as a metaphor for how the fervour for democatic reform has lapsed into dormancy (although this is not an idea that is explicitly explored anywhere in the book). But really, it just detracts from the central focus on the student protest movement. Any useful thematic depth it might provide is surely outweighed by the fact that it makes the book nearly twice as long and almost unreadably stodgy.
If I haven't completely put off everyone already, I would also say that people who don't know much about China are going to have a real struggle to follow what's going on and who's who. If you're not fairly used to Chinese names, it can be very difficult to remember or differentiate them. Even I, a 6-year China resident now, was struggling to keep track of the characters. And the author really doesn't give us any help here. There is no characterization whatsoever. None. Just an endless succession of unmemorable names. The dialogue has no life. The action has no pacing. The descriptions are dull and repetitive. The obsessive attention to rather odd - and unimportant - details (another common failing, it seems to me, in contemporary Chinese literature) hovers somewhere between creepy and ludicrous (just try counting how many times he mentions 'sweat' or 'toes'!).
The only reason I can find for wading through this book is the glimpse it gives us of the events leading up to 4/6/89. But even as history, it frustrates rather. The brief backflap biography of Ma implies that he was in Beijing in 1989, but it doesn't quite say so unequivocally, and it gives no further information as to what role he might have played in the protests. This reads like a first-hand account. Indeed, it seems very much as if might be a roman à clef, with Dai Wei and his associates all probably readily identifiable as actual leaders of the student movement for anyone closely familiar with those events. I would have appreciated a Preface and/or some footnotes outlining how closely Ma is presenting the true facts of these events, and how he came by the information. I can see that he might want to protect his sources (many of the leaders of these protests and their families are still subject to close police supervision and harassment to this day, and that is likely to get worse this year as we approach the 20th anniversary), and perhaps even himself; but I would think that he ought to be able to provide a broad outline of the origins of his story without compromising anybody. And yes, I know novelists are often loathe to play historians, to list their sources and delineate the boundaries between truth and fiction. But for events of this magnitude, and especially for events such as this where a fully detailed account of what happened has never really emerged (the 'massacre' is, if not quite completely denied, very heavily downplayed in China, and discussion of it vigorously suppressed), I think there is an important duty of accuracy - an obligation to let the world know as fully as possible what really happened, and to make it clear that this is what you are doing. I touched on this concern before in my review of Mr Pip, a novel set in the midst of the Papua New Guinea civil war of the 1990s, which similarly failed to provide any commentary on the historical roots of the story.
It also irks me that, for all the welter of unsubstantial detail under which the book suffocates to death, the details of the main historical events are not presented as clearly as I would like. The student protest movement went on over the space of 6 or 7 weeks, and there was a permanent occupation of Tiananmen Square for 3 weeks before the tanks rolled in; but only a handful of dates are specifically mentioned within that period, so the timeline is a little muddy. Moreover, Ma recounts a rumour that Prime Minister Li Peng (widely reviled, then and now, as the leading architect of the 'crackdown') had visited the Square along with General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (a would-be 'reformer' whose career was ruined by his sympathy for the students), and then does nothing to contradict that suggestion. My understanding is that Li Peng flatly refused to go to the Square; in fact, Zhao was accompanied on that famous visit by his assistant, the present-day Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. This odd fudging of a key element in the historical narrative makes one wonder how much else Ma may be changing or omitting, and for what reasons. Obviously, the names of the student leaders have been changed; but what about the more prominent figures, noted academics who also supported the protests? Have they been anonymized, fictionalized - or not?
My gravest misgiving of all concerns the final pages recounting what happened on the night of June 3rd/4th. There still seems to be some uncertainty and controversy over just how the clearing of the Square was accomplished, and whether there were any fatalities there. Dai Wei's recollection seems to suggest that, although there were casualties around the immediate approaches to the Square, the Square itself was cleared without gunfire; although he later also reports a rumour from a student fleeing from the direction of the Square early the next morning that there is a 'massacre' in progress of the handful of protesters still remaining there. This ambiguous massacre/no massacre account is very frustrating for readers hoping to find the truth of these events. It also suggests that perhaps in his 'no massacre' version Ma was following The Tiananmen Papers. This book, supposedly a translation of official Chinese government documents, is a detailed and persuasive narrative; but it is widely suspected that many of these documents were fabricated as part of a covert propaganda exercise to bolster the official Chinese line that Western media reports of the 'massacre' had been greatly exaggerated. Again, I would suggest that you can't incorporate a major historical tragedy like this into your fiction without some discussion of your sources.
Enough. I'm afraid I cannot recommend this book on any literary merit; but for people who are interested to learn more about the Tiananmen events of 1989 it is probably essential reading. But do try to compare it with other more factual accounts. And don't feel ashamed about skipping large chunks of it.
And do also check out A Few Flies Get In, if you can find it.