Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Outside the square

Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is a kind of Chinese War and
Peace for modern times. It’s hugely overwritten, and this
reader anyway struggled to consistently distinguish
between all of the characters, but what a canvas he paints
on. This is the (surely only thinly) fictionalized history of
what, by way of geopolitical shorthand, we call the
‘Tienanmen Square massacre.’ You want to know what
really happened, go here: not to some non-fictional account.
It was the most serious challenge the ruling Communists
have faced in their 60 years in power, which is why they
crushed it with such brutality. In Ma’s novel, the story is
told by a student leader who, having taken a bullet in the
head near the square on 4 June 1989, now lies in a coma,
able to observe and think but not to speak or move a
muscle. His deterioration is all too plainly, but no less
brilliantly for that, a metaphor for the Chinese state’s
inability to function fully and humanly. The narration
alternates between his life as it is now—the portrait of his
increasingly mad mother, condemned to look after him, is
unforgettable—and as it was then, when thousands of
students camped in the square in a fever of rebellious hope.
To read what became of their leaders in later years is to feel
the full blast of the tragedy of modern China, which can only
survive, it seems, by consuming its own young.

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