Strong Medicine, On Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma

1216322641large Melissa Holbrook Pierson on Ma Jian’s new novel, Beijing Coma:

Beijing Coma is no simple document of an astonishing event in human history. Subtle and didactic at once, it manages to join these opposing qualities without a visible seam. Characters declaim on recent Chinese history, then comment on why there is need to do so, in lessons that manage to directly educate the reader and illuminate the fictional character. Here is some sort of literary magic. That we know the outcome is actually something we forget as we read, another neat trick perpetrated by an author who is both crafty and passionate: once we come to know these individuals, down to the smell of their shoes and the shape of their toes, the final stupendously crashing scene of pandemonium (as it echoes later in the solitude of poor Dai Wei’s thoughts) is as shocking as it could possibly be, short of our having been there.

Ma Jian, as always, has bigger points to make (not to mention art with great emotional range). He does so by way of what looks like a bit of fun. Take the factions that grow like fungus in the damp medium of the encampment, the factions that he intimates are a congenital problem for the Chinese people: in one two-page span he enumerates the Dare-to-Die Squad, Hunger Strike Headquarters, the Beijing Students’ Federation, the Provincial Students’ Federation, the Workers’ Federation and a troop called the Wolves of the North-West. In a case of “like father, like son,” the students cannot get their march to the square under way until they have engaged in competitive slogan-crafting and painted the results onto banners, an endeavor that provokes ridiculous infighting. These young people are as prone to palace coups and militaristic overthrows as the oppressors they end up pelting with rocks and words. Ma has Dai Wei observe, “The vastness of the Square seemed to have inflated everyone’s egos”; of another compatriot, Dai complains, “With his constant strategising, Yang Tao was living up to his reputation as a modern-day General Zhu Geliang.”