Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: Beijing Coma

Author: Ma Jian
Translated from Chinese by: Flora Drew
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 703
Price: Rs 623

In Beijing Coma, Ma Jian writes, "You've scattered into a darkness, like a grain of salt dissolving in the ocean. What troubles you now isn't that you can't see anything, but that nothing can see you." This one line describes the plight of the people of a nation that buries its secrets, makes few friends and keeps a close watch on its enemies and those who empathise with them.

Dai Wei, a PhD student at Beijing University and protestor at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, is shot in the head by a soldier and falls into deep coma. Trapped in his 'wooden' body, he gradually gains consciousness and begins to sense the massive changes taking place in his country. While he lies motionless in bed, his mind actively traces those vignettes of his childhood and youth that he had long cast away. He remembers the voices, sights, scents and sounds he'd lived with till the day he'd been forced to live within this 'fleshy tomb' of his body.

Ma Jian

Through Dai Wei's memories, Ma Jian relays the horrors of Communist China - the Cultural Revolution instituted by Mao Zedong that led to the persecution of millions of Chinese simply on the premise that they were counter-revolutionary, the failed Great Leap Forward that forced peasants to give up farming and make steel in backyard furnaces leading to famines and resulting in large-scale deaths due to starvation, people being forced to "eat the enemy" in order to survive themselves, brutal forced abortions of foetuses so that people would stick to the one-child norm and a whole generation "orphaned" by the policies of the state that destroyed families and forced parents to give their children to the Communist Party of China. 

'The Tankman'

It was this generation of orphans that took to the streets, in the summer of 1989, to protest against rampant corruption and call for democracy, only to be crushed by army tanks in the widespread crackdown by the government on June 4. The memory of that day recedes from the minds of its citizens as China is rapidly transformed by economic modernisation in the next decade. But Dai Wei remains, as Mao advised, "unchanging in changing circumstances". 

As China grows at a rapid rate to become an economic heavyweight and the 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, nurses and the police. Only in his mind does the true account of the Tiananmen Square Massacre still survive. 

Tiananmen Square Protests
Beijing Coma is a complex but fascinating work of literature. It connects with youat both an emotional and political level. And while its Dai Wei's story all along, it's the suffering his mother goes through that tugs at your heart. Born in a rich landowning family, her father commits suicide after his factory is taken over by the Communist state. Then her husband is labelled rightist and sent off to brutal reform-through-labour camps for about two decades. She staunchly remains loyal to the Communist Party of China and tries to dissuade her sons from joining the protests at the Tiananmen Square. As she grows old caring for her comatose elder son, her younger one builds his own life in the United Kingdom. To pay for Dai Wei's medicines, she first sells his urine, then his kidney. She takes to Falung Gong (a blend of Buddhist, qigong and Taoist traditions) to get some peace and a companion but is arrested during a crackdown against Falung Gong practioners. And when she comes back to her starving son, broken and insane, she finds bulldozers waiting to pull down her house to make way for the a shopping complex and the Bird Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Then she casts away her loyalty to the Party and says, "I want to go to the Square. I want to go on a hunger strike…” China's development has come at great human cost!

Lucid, pacy and thought-provoking, Beijing Coma is touted as Ma Jian's masterpiece. His partner Flora Drew has done a fantastic job at translating it from Chinese so much so that you'd think the book was  originally written in English. A tale of courage and confusion, development and despair, apathy and agony, Beijing Coma is a must-read.

(I had trouble finding this book in stores but you can definitely order the copy online from Flipkart or Amazon.)

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