China is booming, yet deafening silences remain in its official history. Now, Ma Jian has produced an account of the 1989 Tiananmen protests which offers a model of how a modern Chinese literature alive to history might be written. I read the novel and talked to its authorby Tom Chatfield / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (Chatto & Windus, £17.99)
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If the Tiananmen protests hadn’t failed in 1989,” Ma Jian tells me, “there wouldn’t be this book. I wanted through it to find out how such a huge democratic movement could collapse.” The book in question is Beijing Coma, a story that has taken ten years to write and another two to translate, which anatomises this most poignant of doomed revolutions with an attention to detail that is almost orchestral—a beautiful, bewildering cacophony of voices and deeds. “From the outside,” Ma says, “the protests looked like a mass movement. But in fact they were tiny, disconnected pockets of people.” Like Orwell’s Catalonia in 1937, the Beijing students in 1989 were a mess of competing committees and would-be leaders, with moderates shouted down by radicals, and organisers unable to channel the popular sympathy they received. And yet, armed with nothing more than slogans, the 100,000 students who gathered in Tiananmen Square shook the world’s largest autocratic regime to its core.
Beijing Coma is narrated through the figure of Dai Wei, a student shot in the head during the final, brutal extinguishing of the Tiananmen protests. Years later, unable to move, speak or see, he lies on an iron bed, his mother grumpily tending to his decaying body, while his mind hovers between the present, memories of childhood and the events leading up to the 1989 massacre. Much as Beijing transforms almost beyond recognition around Dai Wei’s comatose body, the global perception of China has changed immeasurably since Ma began to write Beijing Coma: from that of a developing economy struggling to modernise to a superpower dazzling the world with its relentless growth. Yet some things have remained in stasis, and, Ma believes, the time for a historical reckoning is long overdue. “Memory and a sense of history give power. The Chinese regime has always been determined to deny this power to its people.”
Beijing Coma is a novel of oppositions; of seasonal and generational changes; of the fraught relationship between hope and experience. The build-up to protest and destruction inches forward within it alongside a narrative of present squalor and defeat—Dai Wei’s immobile body, and the hounding of his mother by the authorities. The protestors of 1989 are painted not as revolutionaries or anarchists but, overwhelmingly, patriots fighting for what they saw…