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Ma Jian: 北京植物人 (Beijing Coma)

As a story this novel is fascinating but not much more. As a document of the massacres in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese authorities on 4 June 1989, it is essential reading. Dai Wei, like his creator, is something of a rebel. We learn at the beginning of the novel that he was shot on 4 June 1989, probably by a plain-clothes policeman with a handgun, rather than a soldier with a rifle, and has remained unconscious since then and, indeed, will stay that way till the end of the novel set early in the 21st century. He is cared for by his mother, Chen Huizhen, a former opera singer. What she and the other characters do not know but we do is that while he appears to be completely comatose, apart from regular bodily functions (including frequent erections), he is in fact fully aware of what is going on around him. He can smell, hear, taste and, on two occasions, even have an orgasm. More particularly he can think and remember and most of the novel consists of his memories as he lies on his iron bed.

His life had not been particularly easy. His parents were both musicians. His father had been a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra and had even gone to the United States with the orchestra. He had considered settling in the United States but had come back to help the Revolution in 1949. He had married Chen Huizhen, a well-known opera singer, but had soon been labelled a rightist, for opposing the government, and had been sent to a labour camp for twenty years. One of Dai Wei’s memories is his father’s return, in ill health but still opposed to the government. Chen Huizhen, who had supported the Party all along, is highly critical of her husband, not least because she has had to pay a heavy price as the wife of a rightist. Dai Wei and his brother also pay a price as they are bullied at school and, like their mother, denied privileges. Dai Wei adopts a left-wing view and in school and, in particular, in university (where he is studying biology) he is involved in student politics, opposed to the regime. Indeed, Ma Jian gives us a highly detailed account of the various student activities and the changes in the Chinese government during the period from the late 1980s, much of which will be just too much detail for the average Westerner.

We also follow Dai Wei’s love life. First there is Lulu when they are fifteen. She is reluctant but, eventually, they start a clandestine relationship. He even copies out an illegal story by hand for her. When he is caught and arrested, he informs on her and she is punished more than him. She will appear later as an adult. His second girlfriend, Ah Mei, has family in Hong Kong and, eventually, they decide that Dai Wei is not suitable for their daughter and she is prevented from seeing him, though he nearly bumps into her several times in Tiananmen Square. Finally, there is Tian Yi, who is with him during Tiananmen Square and comes and visits him frequently, to his great joy, when he is in a coma. She, eventually, as they both planned to do, plans to leave for the United States.

But much of the novel is about the events leading up the Tiananmen Square events. Ma Jian gives us considerable detail of all the ins and outs, the different groups involved, the rumours, the spies, the alleged spies, the logistics (Dai Wei is a security officer), the fears, the problems, the in-fighting, the internal power struggles and the final brutal attack by the Chinese military. It is far too much for many, I suspect, fascinating though the unfolding of events may be, and we soon get lost in a welter of detail. However, while he is remembering these events, leading up to his shooting, we also follow what is happening to him while in a coma. He gets visitors, some of whom talk to him while others talk about him under the assumption that he cannot hear what they are saying (he can). His mother looks after him but she is reluctant, as it is hard and expensive work and more than once she wishes him dead. His brother has gone to England and, though he helps financially, it is not much. Chen Huizhen is spied on and frequently visited by the police who, initially, think Dai Wei is not really unconscious. They warn her that they will arrest him when he regains consciousness and warn her not to complain or to speak to journalists. Eventually, she, too, starts her form of protest by joining Falun Gong, initially to ease her stress but then when the crackdowns occur, she joins in silent protest and is arrested, leaving Dai Wei on his own for a week. Slowly she starts going insane, particularly when they start knocking down her building to build a large shopping centre for the Olympics.

That Ma Jian is totally opposed to the actions of the Chinese authorities as regards the Tiananmen Square events and other activities by the students against the government is no secret. However, though he is critical of their actions, he still manages to tell the story of an ordinary student who is courageous but also concerned with his own life. Who will be his girlfriend? Will he go to the United States? And will his father’s far braver actions be remembered? It all comes to an end for him, when the policeman’s bullet enters his brain on 4 June 1989 but, for us, that is the beginning of an interesting story and a view of the events of those times that we do not always get to hear about.

Publishing history

First published in English 2008 by Chatto & Windus/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Note that the English-language version was published before the Chinese-language version
Translated by Flora Drew