In April 1989, author Ma Jian left Hong Kong, where he had been living in exile for two years, and traveled to Beijing to join the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Days before the tanks rolled in on June 4 to quell the protests, his older brother ran into a clothesline, hit his head on the pavement and fell into a coma. Ma Jian rushed to his brother's side in the coastal city of Qingdao.
"In a state of numb despair," he wrote in a 2007 personal essay on Tiananmen Square and the impetus behind Beijing Coma, "I kept watch over my comatose brother, until, one day, his eyes still closed, he moved his finger across a sheet of paper to write the name of his first girlfriend. His memories had dragged him back to life."
The indispensability and vitality of memory are at the heart of Ma Jian's epic novel Beijing Coma. Protagonist Dai Wei, a doctoral student in molecular biology at Beijing University, has been shot in the head by a soldier during the June 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and lies in a deep coma.
Unable to move, speak or open his eyes, he nonetheless remains startlingly lucid and aware of his surroundings. Denied interaction with the world, he is forced to turn inward and retreat into his memories.
The irony is painful: In his comatose state, he maintains greater psychic freedom than many of his ambulatory countrymen. Should he awaken, his bodily freedom could be placed in jeopardy — the police periodically visit his mother, threatening to arrest Dai Wei once he regains consciousness.
The narrative alternates between Dai Wei's memories — beginning with his childhood in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, but mostly centered on the turbulent days in Tiananmen Square, ending with the day he is shot — and his account of the present time, in which his mother is slowly going mad as she cares for him in her Beijing apartment.
Dai Wei recalls his father, a violinist who was branded a "rightist" and sentenced to 20 years in a reform-through-labor camp, describing the degradation of starving men: "Old Li waited outside the cesspit . . . he scooped out the excrement, rinsed it in water and picked out the chunks of undigested yam."
Dai Wei recounts more horror stories: his uncle being forced to bury his own father alive; the Red Guards pouring boiling water over a neighbor's head; his cousin's wife being forced to have her baby aborted and then watch as he is drowned as punishment for contravening the one-child policy; revolutionary committees forcing people to eat the flesh of "class enemies."
The Tiananmen Square student demonstrations start as a commemoration of the death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a reformer, yet it is against the backdrop of a traumatized generation with overwhelming, pent-up rage and sadness seizing a bizarre, unique moment in time that we appreciate the magnitude of the event.
Nonetheless, Ma Jian provides us with anything but an idealized account of the student demonstrators. Courageous and passionate, they are also petulant, petty and selfish. Rival factions emerge and dissolve. There are constant power struggles, which seem to mimic those of the Communist Party they are warring against.
Meanwhile, Dai Wei's mother, desperate to rouse him from his coma, takes him to a seemingly endless parade of quack doctors. Because of Dai Wei's prominent role in the Tiananmen demonstrations, hospitals are forbidden to treat him. At one point, he is visited by "Old Huang, the urine connoisseur," who believes that drinking urine can cure disease. He is accompanied by an entourage who pay for cups of Dai Wei's urine and claim that it helps relieve everything from arthritis to shingles.
As time passes, friends and former demonstrators come to visit. They have all left the academic world and moved on, taking jobs at Internet and software companies, securities and real estate firms. Eager to take advantage of China's new prosperity, they steer clear of politics.
At once tragic, darkly humorous and deeply sad, Beijing Coma is a monumental work. As China assumes ever greater economic and political importance, and prepares to take the global center stage as host of the 2008 Olympics, Ma Jian gives us much to remember and even more to think about.
Daniel Wein is a freelance writer and editor in Gainesville.