by Ma Jian
Reviewed by John Leonard
Bejing Coma (Picador, $18.00) is two thousand years of Chinese history and mythology-from the classic Book of Mountains and Seas in the second century A.D. to the murder of students and workers in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Although Ma Jian, author of Stick Out Your Tongue and The Noodle Maker, was a decade older than most of the Tiananmen student protesters, he left Hong Kong immediately to join their hunger strike in April, to sing along with Simon and Garfunkel in May, and to just miss the massacre because of family business on June 4. Since official China has sought to erase all memory of these events, Jian has determined to record every word spoken, every banner unfurled, every slogan satirized, every sunflower seed consumed, every intimacy consummated-at a length, almost six hundred pages, that would seem inordinate if it didn't also seem obligatory, a ferocious sort of mourning.
The point of view is that of Dai Wei, a Ph.D. student at Beijing University whose musician-father had gone to prison for "rightist" deviations during the Cultural Revolution, whose embittered opera-singing mother eventually joins the Falun Gong sect, whose resourceful girlfriends all prove to possess survival skills superior to his own, whose fellow insurrectionaries are as often power grabbers and glory hounds as martyrs and saints, and whose head will end up with a bullet hole in it just when he thought the worst was over. After which, for ten years, Dai Wei lies in a helpless coma, remembering every minute of the past as if it had been inscribed indelibly on his skin and sinew, siphoned of a miracle urine that apparently cures other people's infirmities and harvested of a kidney his mother decides he doesn't really need, hearing former friends excuse themselves for selling out their student idealism in a brand-new capitalist-road China of real estate deals and microchips, and dreaming of a backward deliverance into geography and myth like "the trees that grow in the clouds and the birds with nine heads" in The Book of Mountains and Seas.
So remarkable is it that we should suddenly receive this gift, an account of Tiananmen as breathless as John Reed's gee-whiz account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, I've almost neglected to mention how carefully Ma Jian constructs his time capsule. To be sure, we get plenty of Red Guards, boiled pigskins, dead fetuses, "Black Categories," struggle sessions, and peanut sauce. But there is nothing accidental or incidental about the sudden appearance in a Guangzhou student dormitory of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Kafka's Castle. Dai Wei's coma is also China's; like Chairman Mao in his mausoleum, he seems to be buried alive. And the cannibalism to which Dai Wei's father was an appalled witness is a dress rehearsal for fathers butchering their children in Tiananmen Square.