Nightmare on Tiananmen Square
A comatose student protester dreams of China.

By Reviewed by Belle Yang
Sunday, May 25, 2008


By Ma Jian

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

Farrar Straus Giroux. 586 pp. $27.50

After police ransacked his home and interrogated him for bourgeois activities, dissident writer Ma Jian found solace traveling the wild, minority-inhabited regions of China. Upon his return to Beijing, he was further harassed and so left for Hong Kong in 1986, where he began a memoir, Red Dust, and a story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue. Now banned in China, his work reflects on the vagabond's eternal search for the elusive ideal of home.

His masterful new novel, Beijing Coma, is informed by his return in 1989 to take part in Democracy Spring. The hero, a student named Dai Wei, is an eyewitness to the killing of his friends in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, by the People's Liberation Army, which was ordered by the government to put down pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. After taking a friend, whose legs had been crushed by a tank, to a hospital mired in the blood of the dead and dying, Dai Wei goes back to the streets, where the conflict is still raging. Seeing his former Hong Kong girlfriend emerge like a vision of the Goddess of Democracy, he runs toward her, but a shot is fired, and she falls to her knees. As he wonders whether she has been hit, a bullet explodes in his head.

We first meet Dai Wei in his 10th year in a coma, as wasted as an Egyptian mummy, one kidney sold to pay for his medical treatments. And yet -- though his body is imprisoned in a society where the very air is owned by the party, and his soul is incarcerated in a fleshy tomb -- he has absolute freedom to roam the geography of his favorite text, The Book of Mountains and Seas, a pre-dynastic classic of geography and myth. As his mind wanders, he takes us through the interplay of the present, memory, myths, poetry and the cellular landscape of his body.

In elaborate detail, he mentally revisits the rise of Democracy Spring: from campuses to marches to hunger strikes and the ensuing bravado, naiveté, cowardice, warfare, sex and infidelity among the perilously undemocratic student leadership. Indeed, Ma Jian's critique of these young protesters is as sharp as anything in the novel. In his telling, the young commander-in-chief is flattened under a tank, even though the actual student leader at Tiananmen Square, Cai Ling, managed to escape to the United States. Ma Jian seems to suggest that even with her flight, Cai Ling's voice has been quashed by the regime because of her silence in her adopted country.

Yet all is not darkness in this multifaceted book. Droll internal dialogues charm us into falling in love with the outwardly comatose narrator. Dai Wei perceives his environment through his acute senses of smell and hearing. He imagines crying out to his mother: " 'Get me some bananas, will you?' I can smell bunches of them on the street stall outside." When friends visit, Dai Wei notices that people speak to him "as though they're leaving a message on an answerphone." Dai Wei wants to know more news from an old classmate, but unfortunately he lets out a fart, driving the young visitor away.

His mother berates Dai Wei for merely existing as a piece of wood and asks him to die. Yet even in her moments of hopelessness and madness, she is comical and oddly loving. She finds comfort through her therapeutic exercises with the outlawed Falun Gong movement until she's arrested, leaving Dai Wei temporarily without nourishment. In one rollicking episode, the media discover that Dai Wei's years in a fasting, vegetative state have given his urine magical healing properties. His mother invites urine connoisseurs to his bedside.

Dai Wei may be stuck in his iron bed, haunted by the tragedy of 1989, but this novel is thoroughly awake to the evils of the new China. During the 10 years he has been in what he calls "hibernation," China's citizens have become preoccupied with getting rich, a development that dismays him. "Do I really want to wake from this deep sleep and rejoin the comatose crowd outside?" he asks himself. "No one talks about the Tiananmen protests any more, or about official corruption. The Chinese are very adept at 'reducing big problems to small problems, then reducing small problems to nothing at all.' "

Ma Jian, who now lives in London with his translator and partner, Flora Drew, offers the Chinese people an avenue through which to retrieve their souls and emerge from their collective coma. He gives us two choices: remain society's slaves or lose everything and find freedom. This book, inevitably, will be banned in China, but smuggled and pirated Chinese editions will be read avidly there. ·

Belle Yang is the author and illustrator of "Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father's Shoulders."

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