The day before I meet novelist Ma Jian near his west London home, he appears before a packed audience at the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. Speaking through his wife and translator Flora Drew, Ma discusses Beijing Coma, his epic new novel spanning 30 years of Chinese history that centres on the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989. During the evening, Ma hears his book heralded as one of the defining works of the 21st century by Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent newspaper.
Reconvening the next day, it becomes clear that Ma, 54, is not the sort of writer who lets such praise go to his head. Modest and serious (Drew describes him as 'an innocent'), Ma speaks passionately and with frequent touches of poetry: he likens China to both a 'fat businessman with his pockets stuffed with money' and a stage where 'everyone puts on a mask'. And when I ask what it's like to hear Beijing Coma exalted as one of the new millennia's finest novels, he shows he is capable of dry wit too. It comes in handy, he tells me. 'If there's a lot of washing up to do, it can be a very helpful excuse.'
Beijing Coma tells the story of Dai Wei, a bright but unexceptional young man whose existence is constantly derailed by political circumstance. His father was sent to a prison camp during the Cultural Revolution. Dai Wei becomes involved in the student protests at Tiananmen Square. During the brutal suppression of the demonstrators on June 4, he is shot in the head and falls into a decade-long coma. Suspended between waking and dreaming, his mind pores over the events of his life while his fragile body is pawed over by doctors and healers.
In one sense, Dai Wei's condition mirrors the lengthy, even tortuous, process of completing the novel. A decade in the writing, Beijing Coma took an immense toll on its author, who immersed himself utterly in the isolated imagination of his hero. Drew says that for 10 years Ma wrote surrounded by images of cells, nerves and arteries that were plastered on the walls of his office.
'I had to enter completely the world of Dai Wei,' Ma says. 'I had to experience the world through the cells of his skin. The despair of being trapped inside the body when all your orifices - your nostrils, ears - are not an escape route. You want to escape but you cannot. I had to develop an awareness where you could hear a fly 100 metres away flapping its wings.'
Unsurprisingly, this intense creative submersion could not be sustained forever. 'I got a third of the way through and felt I had reached the end. I felt almost suicidal. I had entered too much this world.'
This was far from the only emotional trial Ma had to endure. A participant in the protests at Tiananmen Square until the end of May 1989, he relived one of the most horrifying events in modern history. 'I was a survivor of those events. I wasn't injured. I wasn't hurt. I came out alive. What I was left with was an enormous feeling of despair and horror.'
Ma would have been present at the end if his family hadn't been struck by a personal tragedy of their own. Four days before June 4, his brother fell into a coma when he became entangled in a washing line and hit his head on a concrete slab. 'I left Beijing for my hometown in Qingdao. If my brother hadn't had that accident, I would have been there right until the final days.'
It is a testament to Ma's prose that Beijing Coma's nerve-shredding final pages read like an eyewitness account. In fact, they bear testimony to an exhaustive process of research. 'I read every single book, every document written about Tiananmen. I spoke to every person I could find who was involved. It was a very painful project to take on.'
Ma was no stranger to hardship before Tiananmen. Born in 1953, he grew up under the bleak shadow of the Cultural Revolution: his grandfather was arrested and executed by water deprivation. Ma became a painter and later a photo-journalist. One can glimpse in both choices the seeds of the novelist whose eye for ordinary life and mundane physical detail would suffuse Beijing Coma.
'What appealed to me about photography was that I could catch in one split second areas of life that are usually neglected, those little corners of life that no one notices.' But Ma's artistic career quickly brought him into conflict with the authorities.
During the 1970s he was detained by the police for organising private exhibitions of his paintings. 'When I would hire a life-model to do drawing, we would both be arrested. I got fed up with continual interference from the police.'
Perhaps this explains why in his 30s he turned to the more clandestine form of literature. 'Writing forces you into your own private world. I felt more comfortable there,' he says. Like many of his peers, however, Ma had a lot to learn. 'All the writers at that time were searching for freedom of expression, but they had a very unclear understanding about what democracy meant. Their only understanding was to grow their hair long, wear sunglasses and denim jeans.' Ma did his fair share of hair-growing and denim-wearing, but decided 'the greatest act of rebellion he could think of' was to travel, ending up in Tibet, 'the farthest place I could imagine'.
The result was Stick Out Your Tongue, a book of stories condemned by the government as 'filthy and shameful'. Ma was criticised for his 'obsessive desire for sex and money'. Having already moved to Hong Kong, he escaped certain arrest.
'When I first arrived in Hong Kong I camped out in a bookshop for six months and read translations of foreign books. I discovered these great gaps in my knowledge - how much I had to learn about the real meanings of freedom and how a writer must confront their history. I realised I belonged to a generation that had been brainwashed. It was only then that I realised all writing should have a purpose.'
The purpose of Beijing Coma, he says, is two-fold. It is a wake-up call for a world grown numb to morality and even its own nature. 'Dai Wei is aware of the plastic fly-swatter hanging on the inside of the toilet door, the little splash of toothpaste on the mirror. The mundane details people usually ignore. I wanted to convey how people live in a trance-like state, how much of life they lose. Only when you remember it do you form a true picture of what life is.'
This process of forgetting inevitably doubles as a political statement. Dai Wei's coma is a metaphor for China's uneasy relationship with its past, how it deliberately erases events such as Tiananmen from the popular memory. 'Twenty years have passed and this collective amnesia means problems have been mounting up. There is widespread corruption and official profiteering. People have no belief systems. If Dai Wei awakes, it will be to a deadened culture that has no memory.
'When he was struck in the head, he fell in the political centre of China. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a shopping centre. There is no place left for him.'
One might say the same about Ma. Happily married with two young children, he is resigned to life as an exile in London, a place he describes, lapsing briefly into English, as 'boring'.
One of many paradoxes of his situation is that life under a repressive government can seem exciting and inspiring in contrast. 'I like the Chinese, I like Chinese food. I like the absurdity of China. It is only when I am there that my writing comes alive,' he says.
Ma is also resigned to the fact that Beijing Coma won't be officially published in China for the foreseeable future. However, Ma does glimpse reasons to be cheerful. Although he remains uneasy at developments in Tibet ('they face this June 4 mentality every day') and is sceptical about the Olympics, he hopes that 2009's 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square will prove a turning point.
He cites the government's reaction to the Sichuan earthquake as an example.
'It is the first time in millennia of Chinese history that the state has officially mourned the deaths of citizens. This did not happen in 1976, when many thousands more people died. This day of remembrance will be a catalyst for people to remember other tragedies like the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square.'
Before the couple leave I echo a question put to Dai Wei in Beijing Coma and ask Ma if he has a wish. He answers that he wants to see as much of the world as he can. But Ma's wishes don't stop there.
'I hope within 10 years the official verdict on the Tiananmen massacre will be reversed. I hope that the younger generation of party leaders will understand the need to democratise, because there is no other path they can take if they hope to survive. One day the truth will come out.'
Name: Ma Jian
Genre: Literary fiction
Latest book: Beijing Coma (Chatto & Windus)
Family: married to Flora Drew, two children, plus a daughter from a previous marriage
Other works include: Stick Out Your Tongue (1987), Red Dust (2001), The Noodle Maker (2004)
Other jobs: painter, photographer.
Next project: a novel. 'Whenever I talk about [my next book], suddenly, three months later, somebody else has written that book.'
What the critics say about
'An epic yet intimate work that deserves to be recognised and to endure as the great Tiananmen novel.' - The Financial Times
'China after Tiananmen Square
is memorably captured in
this fine fictional portrait.' -
The Sunday Times
About Ma: 'One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.' - Gao Xingjian, Nobel Prize for literature winner
The Castle by Franz Kafka
A classic novel in which a man called 'K' struggles endlessly with faceless bureaucracy in order to enter The Castle.
Ma Jian calls it 'man's battle against fate'.
In Search of Lost Time
by Marcel Proust
An epic semi-autobiographical novel about time, space and memory, described by Ma as
'life as a backward journey'.
The Georgics by Claude Simon
A challenging novel that weaves three stories: those of a soldier in 18th-century France, a French soldier in the second world war and a stranger to Barcelona in the Spanish civil war. This anti-war epic helped win Simon the Nobel Prize for literature in 1985. Described by Ma as 'the minute chronicling of experience'.
Searching for Memory
by Daniel Schacter
A professor of psychology at Harvard, Schacter wrote this acclaimed study of memory in 1996. It was praised as a history of memory and an examination of its vulnerability to disease. Ma considers it 'the poetry of neuroscience'.
The Tongue Set Free
by Elias Canetti
Born in Bulgaria, Canetti won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. He is best known for Auto Da Fe, but this memoir of his childhood ranks among his best work.
Ma calls it 'a vivid portrait of childhood'.