Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008)
Summary: "Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A PhD student at Beijing University and a pro-democracy protester at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was caught 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. Dodging constant police surveillance, she took him to quack doctors in the remote countryside, hoping they might help bring him out of his coma. When her money ran out, she sold his left kidney and befriended Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect, who was prepared to treat Dai Wei for free.
"Dai Wei lives on his iron bed and relives the past -- returning to his childhood in the Cultural Revolution, his three troubled love affairs, and the heady days of the democracy movement -- while all around him China continues to change. As the millenium 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 bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is in 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."
Opening Lines: "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."
My Take: I've lost track of how many times I've checked this book out and then returned it to the library spine unbent (at least by me). The first ten pages or so look promising. Let's see how it plays out.
Finally finished this one last night. Glad I finally did, but all in all, it was a bit disappointing. The novel alternates between two narrative streams: one takes place in 1989, when Dai Wei is in graduate school, in the months leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The second is set ten years later, on the eve of the millenium, as Beijing puts its best foot forward for its Olympic bid and fully cognizant Dai Wei lies, still comatose, in his mother's filthy flat. Surprisingly, it's the second that's far more compelling. The 1989 narrative, while interesting at the start and harrowing at the end, grows almost unbearably tedious in the middle. There may have been an intentional, meta-level component to this; if you've been in a coma for 10 years, completely aware of what's going on around you but totally incapable of communicating that fact, and have nothing to do but remember your past in excruciatingly minute detail, I suppose that would be pretty tedious -- but it still didn't make me eager to pick up the book and read about it for much of the past week. The Tiananmen Square student protests, naturally, featured a cast of thousands, and I had difficulty keeping most of the players straight. While some of this may be my own unfamiliarity with Chinese names, I don't think that's the bulk of it; rather, I think it's that Ma doesn't successfully portray more than 2 or 3 as having distinctive identities that set them apart from their classmates and comrades. Tian Yi is Dai Wei's histrionic and not very likable girlfriend; Nuwa is the stunning art student every man in the square is in love (or at least in lust) with; Ke Xi is the passionate but intemperate early leader of the student movement who regularly faints from the intensity of his own exertions; and Dai Wei seems to have a more-info-than-I-needed-thanks fascination with ladies' feet. After 400+ pages in the Square, I wanted to know more about these characters (and some of the others around them) than that. And while it seems almost inevitable that a burgeoning political movement + college students = a certain amount of internecine squabbling and jockeying for position, I wasn't sufficiently convinced of the characters' passion to see why they bothered to stick it out. (By contrast, when I read Les Miserables, I both appreciated the students' ideals and felt a certain sad sympathy for their doomed naivete -- though admittedly, not every novelist can be Victor Hugo.)
On the other hand, hearing the comatose Dai Wei's perspective on all that's happening around him as he lies abed motionless is by turns hair-raising and fascinating. While his mother's not a very sympathetic character, and you're shocked the first few times she urges her son to hurry up and die (assuming, of course, that he can't hear or understand her), you also can't help but muse on the toll serving as his caregiver almost single-handedly for a decade must take. Throughout most of the novel, she remains convinced that Dai Wei himself is to blame for his position -- just as she'd blamed his late father years before for being branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. Yet she continues for years to seek unorthodox treatments, desperately hoping that one day, something will finally wake him up. And I was both repulsed and curious to read about the increasingly filthy and cluttered state of her apartment; is this because she's simply exhausted from the burden of caring for her son, or is is a deliberate (and largely successful) attempt to keep the police (at first suspicious of Dai Wei's Tiananmen Square connections and later of her involvement in Falun Gong) at bay? It's also intriguing to see how much detail Dai Wei is able to discern from his bed, as he becomes more and more attuned to infinitesimal variations in sounds, movements, and smells ... and to follow the divergent paths of his fellow demonstrators over the years, as China's economy explodes.
I don't know that I'm sorry I read this book, but I also don't know that I'll be quick to recommend it to others. This is very likely one that's better to read with a book group than completely solo.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.