Friday, February 13, 2009

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

The plot sounded interesting enough -man in a coma, hospital doesn't want to treat him after they discover that he was a pro-democracy protester in Tiananmen Square. Then there's the fact that I've not read much of the literature emerging from Chinese writers. The back of the book had Michael Dirda and Francine Prose applauding the author's previous works. All good reasons to pick up Ma Jian's Beijing Coma.

We meet Dai Wei while he is in his 10th year of his coma, where despite his vegetative state, he is aware of what is happening around him, and in which he relives his past - his childhood during the Cultural Revolution, his days as a student activist, his relationships.

"Since i've been in a vegetative state, I have been able to re-experience smells and sound from my past. These are the tiny details people generally store in the back of their minds and never get a chance to savour again."

And it's these tiny details that keep me reading. Ma brings in the sights, sounds and smells of China. And I especially enjoyed the bits that involve food.

"I glanced at the chestnuts roasting in the wok of a street stall outside the entrance, and breathed in their sweet fragrance. Just as I was about to enter the bathhouse, I caught a whiff of the mutton skewers cooking on the stall's charcoal grill. The smell was so mouth-watering that I turned round and went to buy myself one. I sprinkled cumin powder and sat down to eat it on a wooden stool under the street lamp."

"My stomach has grown accustomed to hunger,but this morning I suddenly started fantasising about wantons - that delicious combination of flavours: rice vinegar, coriander, shrimp and preserved cabbage. Whenever I had a bowl, I'd always start by wolfing down a few of the tiny dumplings along with the broth they float in. Then I'd spoon out an individual dumpling, take a bite from it, pop a clove of garlic into my mouth and chew slowly, letting the pork and shrimp filling and paper-thin skin blend with the raw garlic and coriander leaves. I'd grind them into a fine pulp that would slip softly down my throat. After each mouthful, I'd pause to inhale the fragrant steam wafting from the bowl."

However, this chunkster of a book (my copy has 586 pages) isn't easy to get through. It could've done with tighter editing and it was hard to keep track of the characters - the demonstrations involve a lot of students, and their number seems to increase with the pro-democracy activities. But I persevered, as the students in the Square persevered, as Dai Wei's mother persevered, bringing him to doctors and qigong masters around the country.

Beijing Coma is full of life - quite a bit of it is shocking and disturbing but through all the struggles and difficulties that these fictional student protestors faced as they camped out in the square, there is the reminder that this is something that actually happened, that this was an actual event that took place.

"Tiananmen Square was the heart of our nation, a vast open space where millions of tiny cells could gather together and forget themselves and, more important, forget the hick, oppressive walls that enclosed them..."

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