by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew)
Random House, HK$275
In the middle of a deep sleep wakefulness can come suddenly. Maybe the wind took a dustbin and rattled it against a wall. Or a lover's arm was outstretched, tipping the balance within an unsettling dream.
At such moments our bodies seem null and void. Our minds float in a vivid half-world of consciousness like the retinal image of a lightning flash. These instances of heightened consciousness usually last for just a few seconds but for Dai Wei, the central character in Ma Jian's extraordinary new novel Beijing Coma (in an acclaimed translation by Flora Drew), they are his life for almost a decade.
Not that Dai Wei is truly the central character of this book. At the very least he shares centre stage with his coma, caused by a bullet to the head as he protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is this condition that generates a narrative that is disturbing, revolting, gripping and, at the end, emotionally exhausting.
After Dai Wei is shot he is assumed to be in a vegetative state. To outsiders he does nothing but snore and expel bodily fluids. Inside it's a different story. He can hear everything and his mind becomes increasingly agile at interpreting each sound while his condition leaves him looking like a fresh corpse. Thus he lies in a narrow bed, in his mother's derelict apartment, reconstructing his life and reinterpreting the events of the previous three decades through the noises that burrow into his ears like mythical dragons, breathing fire and dreams. His fetid stream of consciousness is rarely interrupted by sleep: the longest he is out in the course of 10 years is when his mother has one of his kidneys removed so she can raise funds for his daily regimen of drugs.
After Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago it was easy to suppose he had cornered the market in appalling prison images. The Nobel prize-winner's portrait of a Siberian labour camp contained hellish scenes that seemed hard to surpass. Ma's evocations do so with ease as he presents his account of Dai Wei's violinist father's incarceration in a prison camp
for being a rightist, a label earned during the Cultural Revolution because he once played in a performance conducted by an American.
The prison camp is pure sulphur, a place where men eat undigested vegetables rescued from the excrement of more privileged inmates, a woman is raped and her breasts and liver become the sweetmeats at a drunken barbecue and sons are forced to bury their own fathers alive. These detailed descriptions of inhumanity have the vivid quality of a Hieronymus Bosch painting and throughout the book there is the sound of men and women screaming as their flesh is stripped away. As with Bosch, Ma's work conveys a vertiginous sense of standing at the edge of an abyss at the bottom of which human dignity is obliterated.
Ma is now an exile in London but, like Solzhenitsyn, he lived the events depicted in his novel. Born in Qingdao in 1953 he lived in Beijing until 1987, when he moved to Hong Kong. In 1989 he returned to Tiananmen Square to show his solidarity with the pro-democracy activists. He says he wrote Beijing Coma because open discussion of Tiananmen events is forbidden on the mainland and he wanted to 'bear witness to recent history and reclaim the people's right to remember'. To a degree that makes this book a political project but it is as literature that the novel triumphs.
As with Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis Ma Jian uses the device of imprisoning somebody in an immobile body to set free their imagination and create a world of existential drama. Although Kafka's Gregor Samsa becomes a cockroach Dai Wei's condition is no less objectionable, for he is regarded as vermin by all except his mother, who is driven insane by the daily demands of his care.
The main purpose of this device is to drive home the point that while ordinary Chinese are ordered to forget the events of 1989, Dai Wei's memory of them - and the events that preceded them, such as the Cultural Revolution - becomes more intense. He even draws Hong Kong into the picture, for it is a Hong Kong speculator who buys the building where his mother has her apartment and orders it torn down around his ears to be replaced by a luxury hotel.
This is not to say that Beijing Coma is all about brutality. What makes this book transcend the banal confines of agitprop is the way Ma writes about what he calls 'the things that make life worth living: love, hope, freedom, truth and the quest for the sublime'.
To write a novel about love and freedom from the standpoint of a comatose man stretched out on a filthy mattress is an astonishing achievement.