Cultural revelation?

Ma Jian's Beijing Coma is an ambitious attempt at the Great Chinese Novel. But something is lost in the process.

The sleep of democracy: <i>Beijing Coma</i> centres on the protests and massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
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Ma Jian is certainly not lacking in ambition. But in trying to create the Great Chinese Novel, he’s written the little man out of history, argues Michael Donohue.

Beijing Coma
Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew
Chatto and Windus

When a novelist sets out to write something truly ambitious - something that might get called, say, "the defining work of its age" - it doesn't hurt to include a few scenes from whatever massacre, riot, or invasion has already defined that age. Flaubert knew that if his Sentimental Education contained some episodes from the 1848 uprising in Paris, the book would have a stronger claim to being "the moral history of the men of my generation". Milan Kundera gave extra weight to The Unbearable Lightness of Being by setting it during the Prague Spring of 1968. Doctor Zhivago falls for Lara against the backdrop of Russia's Civil War - and suddenly it's much more than a regular love affair.

Ma Jian's new novel, Beijing Coma, is as ambitious as they come, for it wants to be nothing short of a Tiananmen Square epic - a sweeping tale of the protests that shook China's capital for six weeks in 1989, then ended with a bloody military reaction on June 4. Nothing in the country's recent history matches the tragic significance of this massacre, so a book with this backdrop can't avoid coming off as an attempt at "The Great Chinese Novel", or at least a full-scale examination of the first generation to come of age in the post-Mao era. The setting also guarantees the book won't be published inside China, which Ma left in 1987 (he now lives in London).

The novel unfolds in the mind of Dai Wai, who in the chaos of June 4 is struck in the head by a policeman's bullet. Throughout the 1990s, while lying in bed covered in tubes - appearing unconscious, but actually able to hear everything around him - Dai reviews his life, beginning with his birth in 1966: "It's me. I've crawled out between my mother's legs, my head splitting with pain." He's lucky to have been conceived at all: his father, a victim of the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s, rarely gets permission to leave his "reform-through-labour" camp and visit his family in Beijing.

Under the cloud of his father's imprisonment, Dai Wai grows up in an opera company work unit where any politically incorrect behaviour, such as his sexual adventures with a girl named Lulu, can attract the wrath of authority. One day during the Cultural Revolution - the radical purge of "bourgeois" elements that lasted from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976 - Dai watches some Red Guards murder an old woman by dousing her head in boiling water.

By the early 1980s, when Dai moves to Guangzhou to attend university, Deng Xiaoping has come to power, and everything has changed. Thousands of prisoners, including Dai's father, have been released from labour camps, and the country has opened relations with the West and even begun to liberalise its economy. Encouraged by all this, Dai and his classmates want even more reform. "China had emerged from the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution," he explains, "and we were eager to build our country up again. We were fired by a sense of mission." He stays up late arguing with his friends about politics and corruption and Freud, and gets his heart broken by a girl from Hong Kong. By 1986 he's back in the capital as a Ph.D. student at Beijing University - where he falls in with the eventual student leaders of Tiananmen.

From there - and there are more than 400 pages left - Ma Jian devotes the great bulk of the novel to a nearly day-by-day account of the 1989 protests, from the mid-April death of the reform-minded ex-official Hu Yaobang (which started everything) right up to the violent end. As thousands fill the square, the student leaders - many of them real figures with minutely altered names - spend most of the time arguing with each other. Rumours fly. Romance blooms. A hunger strike ensues. The furious Ke Xi, a thinly disguised version of the real student leader Wu'er Kaixi, criticises Premier Li Peng on national television. Martial law is declared. The papier-maché "goddess of democracy" statue goes up - and so on, until the tanks arrive.

And here lies the problem of Beijing Coma. Where so many other writers have used well-known events as backdrops to fictional tales - giving the private sphere a dynamic relation with the political one - Ma spends so much time painting his setting that he loses sight of the story that's supposed to take place in it. We're inundated with so much trivial detail from the protests that Dai Wai's personal story gets lost. It's as if Tolstoy, in War and Peace, had forgotten about Pierre Bezukhov because he focused too much on artillery tactics.

Despite giving so much space to the protests themselves, Ma never adequately shows why the students were willing to risk their whole futures, even their lives, to participate in the demonstration. The novel is equally vague on the post-Tiananmen era. Trapped in his coma, Dai Wai listens as China embraces capitalism. Cell phones and the internet arrive. His mother goes broke taking care of him, joins Falun Gong, and gets arrested. She learns their apartment is about to be razed to make room for a mall. An old friend from the Square arrives to say that the Tiananmen generation has been "crushed and silenced. If we don't take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books". We're clearly meant to see that it's not just Dai Wai, but all of China, that's slipped into a coma; but Ma's allegory has the unfortunate result of leaving its narrator blind - which is not a convenient way to observe contemporary China.

Beijing Coma shows us that the Tiananmen protesters were idealistic and rash, that the government acted badly and that crony capitalism prevailed in China. But Ma might have explored some of the things we don't know - what a soldier felt as he machine-gunned civilians; what a government moderate said to his wife at breakfast; what, exactly, made those hardliners so unrelentingly hard. The defining event of its age, re-imagined from multiple perspectives, with fresh speculations on the motives of everyone involved - it would make for a truly ambitious novel.

Michael Donohue lives in Beijing. He won a 2007 National Magazine Award for his essay Russell and Mary.