Beijing Coma

Do you live in China? GO READ THIS BOOK. Do you study Chinese? READ THIS BOOK. Do you have any interest whatsoever in China? READ. THE BOOK. NOW. Do you like powerful literature which touches deep and difficult questions? READ IT. 

As for everyone else – READ IT TOO. Though the wow factor is def increased the more you know about recent Chinese history/society/politics etc, it is a universal novel, and must become a classic.

The online reviews don’t do it justice. Though the author Ma Jian’s interview.Is more interesting. There’s no need for a long synopsis. This is the life of a young man, told from his comatose self after he is shot in the head on 4th June 1989 at Tiananmen Square. We flash between his current life trapped motionless inside his body as China changes, and relieving the time before, with most action happening in the last few weeks of the protests, before the clampdown. 

Pic from TAM

Pic from TAM

What makes this book an epic though, is the way it (reasonably) seemlessly combines three major elements of good literature. 

– it is effortlessly wellwritten and fascinating down to tiny details  

– small physical things are used to stir big ideas. most obvious is the interplay between a man who can control his mind but not his body, and the changing country/world that surrounds him. but the book drips in history, philosophy, big questions, in a way that reverberates far beyond Chinese politics (though obviously this is the sharpest focus)

–  despite this, it is down to earth (and very often literally down to shite), and seems very real. the research is meticulous, and Ma Jian was a first-hand participator himself. This is of course a hugely emotive event, which had massive implications for the course of China’s recent history. Yet the temptation to romanticise is avoided at every turn. they are ordinary students who become protagonists in extraordinary circumstances, infighting self-appointed defenders of abstract nouns which no-one fully understands. we are not allowed to forget this. 

Book cover. It's long but gets better and better the further through you are.

From a Chinese perspective, this book is monumental. Whereas “Scar literature” has worked through much of the trauma of the cultural revolution, TAM (as chinese internet users refer to it) is still a taboo topic. (as is Falung Gong etc which is also touched on in the novel). Since anything deviating from the official line is stamped on in China, most young people either don’t know or don’t care. Ma Jian brings it kicking and squealing into the public forum, saying for the sake of the Chinese people and their history, this should not be forgotten.

But it is not just a Chinese book. Its story and ideas are applicable far beyond, from the challenge of forgetting and the twists of modern society, to simply its excellent storytelling and black black humour. Comparisons with Wild Swans are spurious, these are two very different books. I hope you will read it, give it patience and thought, and get as much out of it as I did. Apololgies though for the hyberbole. 

Btw Beijing Coma has not yet been released in Chinese – this is waiting for 6th June 2009, the 20th anniversary of the TAM crackdown. Though since it will be banned on the mainland, it’ll be interesting to see how many copies get read by the people it is most intended for.

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