Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thinking 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 I
struggled to consistently distinguish between all of the
characters, but what a canvas he paints on. This is an 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 the narrator who, having taken a
bullet in the head near the square on 4 June 1989, now lies
in a vegetative coma, able to think and reflect but not to
speak or move a muscle. The narration alternates between
the historical action in the square and the current inaction
on the comatose man’s bed. His condition is all too plainly
a metaphor for the Chinese state’s inability to function fully
and humanly. Read this, and you will weep for China; or, if
tears are not your thing, read it as an antidote to the
juvenile outpourings of publicity about China's 'growth' and
allow yourself to believe that economic development alone
makes no nation great and no people sane and whole.

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