The Impossibility of Digestion
Dai Wei, the narrator of Ma Jian’s second novel, Beijing Coma,has been comatose since he was shot in the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989. The novel unfolds ten years later, over the course of the last night of 1999. He relives his childhood, the demonstrations, and the ten strange, comatose years that followed. Ma Jian interweaves political bile with bizarre humor and threads of sad mysticism. Trapped in a rotting body, Dai Wei has sex with a woman who might be a bodhisattva. His mother sells one of his kidneys to pay his medical bills.
The novel feels out, with sensitive, digressive fingers, the way that violence and silence sift and settle between generations, transmitted but never processed or understood. Each character, in his way, is a casualty of his generation, but none can explain to those who are younger or older what this means. Dai Wei’s father spent twenty-two years in reform-through-labor-camps. His politically dogmatic wife never forgave him. But Dai Wei, born in 1967, came of age in a world radically different from his parents’. He was too young to comprehend — and almost too young to remember — the Cultural Revolution. His was a world of pornographic playing cards and Taiwanese pop stars, but one coated, still, in the thick and anxious residue of his parents’ generation’s bloody youth. He fixates on the gruesome details in their past. One of his uncles killed his grandfather during Land Reform. In the labor camps, Dai Wei’s father ate shit. Red Guards ate human flesh.
And yet, despite this fixation, Dai Wei’s capacity for personal empathy, especially empathy for his family, is limited. His activism is in some way a response to the violence done to and by his parents’ generation, but his grasp of the forces behind that violence, like his grasp of their lived experience, is tenuous.
In the spring of ’89, Dai Wei finds himself on the fringes of the student leadership in Tiananmen Square. Sketches of real figures, these young demonstrators are overwhelmed by infighting and inexperience. It is unclear what the protesters are demanding. It is unclear who is in charge. Childishness, in other words, becomes the novel’s tragic engine. The pettiness and incompetence of the movement’s leadership, and Dai Wei’s immaturity, fuel its emotional crescendo. They do not know how to get out of the Square. They are trapped, first in abstract, strategic terms; then in concrete, military terms; then in inescapable, corporeal reality. They are children; they are trapped and, like children, they do not know what to do.
Ma Jian left China for Hong Kong in 1987 after his first collection of short stories was banned. He can still travel freely on the mainland, but he is monitored. He cannot speak publicly and he cannot publish: a frustrating impasse, surely, for an author who writes only in Chinese. He lives now in London with Flora Drew, who translates his work. Ma Jian returned to Beijing in the spring of ’89 to participate in the demonstrations, and his depiction of the power struggles between the student factions and assorted charismatic leaders is extraordinarily detailed, and based on personal experience. The squabbling drips both with exasperation — an acute kind of exasperation, relentless and sometimes monotonous, unique, maybe, to an author who writes obsessively about his homeland but can never be read there — and with compassion. It is perhaps because he was some fifteen years older than the students he met in Tiananmen Square that Ma Jian is so evocatively — and sympathetically — attuned to their immaturity.
Beijing Coma seeks to define a generation, to evoke the thrill of being young and alive in the spring of 1989, and to memorialize a lost vitality. “We’re the Tiananmen Generation,” one of Dai Wei’s classmates says at Dai Wei’s bleak thirtieth birthday party, “But no one dares call us that.” Dai Wei’s coma is, of course, a metaphor for the political climate in China since 1989. Parents don't talk about Tiananmen with their children, and teachers do not teach it in schools. This year three editors at a Chengdu newspaper were fired from their jobs for running an advertisement “paying tribute to the strong mothers of Six-Four victims.” The person who placed the ad said that June Fourth was the anniversary of a mining accident, and the young employee who accepted the advertisement believed him. Another layer of residue, another layer of unacknowledged violence, coats the landscape. Ma Jian’s fascination with the gruesome — with rotting coma patients, cannibalism, dead fetuses, and girls’ bodies squished by tanks onto sidewalks — is itself perhaps a testament to the impossibility of digestion. Violence in Ma Jian’s universe is never assimilated or expunged. It is only transformed into new kinds of violence.
Carolyn Gaebler ’10 is battling cockroaches with a September issue of Vogue.