Ma Jian's 'Beijing Coma'
Mr. GUY RAZ, host:
Ma Jian is one of China's major fiction writers. His latest novel, "Beijing Coma," translated by Flora Drew, takes us back to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Allan Cheuse has this review.
ALLAN CHEUSE: "Beijing Coma" is set 10 years after the 1989 uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Dai Wei(ph), a university student, was one of the protest's leaders. He's been lying in a coma in the 10 years since. But quite miraculously and ironically, within the sleeping hulk of his body his mind is wide awake, awake and aware. He struggles to keep himself alert by going over the events of his past, rehearsing in his mind the narrative that led up to Tiananmen Square. For hundreds of pages we find ourselves in the middle of scenes of student organizers cheering them on as they dedicate their sincere devotion to the cause of democratic government and put together one of the most important events in history of modern China.
It perhaps even a fascinated reader might wish for a few dozen pages less, the cumulative power of the scenes is nearly overwhelming. Though the novelist himself gives us some relief by punctuating his story with lines of internal monologue from the comatose Dai Wei, he gives us images of his changing body and now and then takes us back to the favorite volume of his childhood, the classic work called "The Book of Mountains and Thieves." You've listened to the voices floating around you, Dai Wei muses, as friends from the demonstration days come to mourn over his helpless body as enviously as a tree trunk staring at falling leaves.
To the north of the eastern wastes lies the land of the nobles, we hear in a passage that he recalls from "The Book of Mountains and Thieves." The inhabitants have jade swords attached to their waists and feed on wild beasts. Two tigers accompany them wherever they go, tree trunks staring at its own falling leaves, two tigers accompanying noble warriors wherever they go. Images such as these arise in constant counterpoint to the political history and deepen the dramatic recollections of a murderous and heroic time.
RAZ: The book is "Beijing Coma" by Ma Jian. Our reviewer Allan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University.
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