'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Beijing Coma 

Yes, every now and then, I do actually read something that appears on a New York Times list of notable books, although, invariably, a year or two after the fact. For me, I consider the discovery of any interesting book to be a contemporary event, regardless of when it was published, because, somewhat egotistically, I consider myself the referent, not the book. I don't segregate books that were published in the past into a cultural ghetto, and I don't dismiss movies released in the past merely because of the technological limitations of their production and distribution.

So, in this instance, I kept running into Ma Jian's Beijing Coma in bookstores for the last couple of years, but couldn't bring myself to purchase it because I had a long list of other books to read. I was also wary of American praise as American critics have a tendency to evaluate literature about China primarily in terms of individual resistance to the government. As a consequence, they are blind to a subject about which the Chinese have long been well aware, namely, the voluntary participation of Chinese people in the worst excesses of the regime. Consider, for example, this review by Jess Rowe in the New York Times, or this excellent one by Christine Smallwood in the Los Angeles Times. Both implicitly separate the individual from the repressive society in which they live, a separation that is never quite so evident in real life.

But, finally, I succumbed when I came across a discounted copy and purchased it. I remembered that Ma Jian first emerged on the international literary scene with his remarkable account of his underground travel across China in the mid-1980s, Red Dust, and hoped that there was much more to the novel than related by critics. There is. As the novel begins, the protagonist, Dai Wei, lies in a coma, as he has done for over 10 years after being shot in the head during the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. Unbenownst to those around him, including his mother, who cares for him, he can perceive the world around him, even though he cannot move and cannot speak.

The narrative proceeds in a contrapuntal movement, with the experiences and expectations of Dai Wei's youth contrasted with those while immobilized. It is a masterful way of bringing out the contradictions of a person's life within the context of the world around them. By doing so, Jian tells a story of redemption, a story whereby Dai Wei comes to know the people of China and bond with them. But, to recognize this, the reader must be attuned to one of the more subtle themes of the sections regarding his youth, his self-hatred for being Chinese. Dai Wei comes from a family of classically trained musicians, and expresses sentiments about many things, but this one is too sensitive, and he never addresses it directly. Instead, it emerges, as it does with many of his university friends, through their fascination with American culture, as synthesized and imported into the country from Hong Kong and Taiwan, his recollections of his father's imprisonment as a rightist and, most specifically, through his encounter with someone investigating the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi Province.

While on vacation from school, Dai Wei finds Dr. Song, a doctor that treated his father while incarcerated in a reeducation camp there. Song explains how he discovered numerous episodes of brutality after being selected to investigate the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi, including one where villagers ate the flesh of bad elements to demonstrate their revolutionary ardor. The thread that runs through all of Song's stories is not the extremism of those who ignited the Cultural Revolution, but, rather, the intensification of it by people determined to purify society by any means necessary. Curiously, given that Jian has a deserved reputation for morbid parody, critics have assumed that the cannibalism episode has a factual basis of some kind, even if only as a composite, ignoring the possibility that it may serve as a gothic fable of the revolution literally eating its own. In any event, many of Dai Wei's friends in college, especially the ones that he makes during his undergraduate education in south China, are driven by an emotional dialectic centered around the difficulty of reconciling their Chinese identity with the ostracism that they have experienced as the children of parents and relatives considered class enemies.

Such an interpretation of the novel leads the reader to perceive some of the more important aspects of the 1989 student movement in a new light. For example, Bai Ling's insistence upon adopting the tactic of the hunger strike, its embrace by thousands of students in Tiananmen Square and the simultaneous decision of some students to take advantage of opportunities to go to the US reveal the desperation of the students as they sought escape from the seemingly irreconciliable dilemma of being Chinese through death or departure. Jian, as a person who returned from Hong Kong to participate in the protests, is critical of the decision to launch the hunger strike, rightly characterizing it as one that permanently foreclosed any prospect for a mediated resolution of the crisis, but there is arguably something more much serious here, an understanding by Jian that the hunger strike exposed the movement as one fueled by schizophrenia as well as concrete political aspirations. Dai Wei was caught in the middle, a ubiquitous presence around the square in his role as organizer of security, yet someone who, by conscious decision, refused to participate in the process, such as it was, by which decisions were made.

Through the alternation of chapters relating Dai Wei's life as a student, and ones describing his subsequent experience while paralyzed, Jian brings to mind the Biblical injunction: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Prior to being shot by an undercover cop, Dai Wei was a precocious child, but, as he suffered through his immobility, and the humiliations that came with it, he becomes a man, emotionally bonding with the people that he involuntarily encounters. He overcomes his resentment towards his mother, despite her inconsistency in properly caring for him, as he observes her isolation and humiliation despite having been a loyal Party member throughout her life. As he sits in his bed day after day, he comes into contact with those he and his student friends presumed to liberate, nurses, migrants, construction workers and elderly pensioners living off the pittance provided by the government.

In other words, Dai Wei learns about the day to day lives of all those people that the student movement failed to effectively reach during the spring of 1989, and becomes one of them. He, along with his mother, struggle with them to survive Deng's reforms throughout the 1990s, as the choices of the emerging market economy merely serve to make their lives more insecure and difficult. The cost of his medical care pushes his mother to the point of insolvency, while a public/private partnership of politicians and real estate developers destroy one of the last remaining vestiges of the iron rice bowl, their home. One is tempted to describe this as a descent into lumpen proletarianism, but it is more accurately described as the life of someone forced to live in a social world that has been informalized.

Hence, through Dai Wei, Jian suggests that the spring of 1989 was a missed opportunity for China to move in a more compassionate, socially inclusive direction. But the students in the square were too immersed in romantic entanglements and sectarian conflict to connect with the populace beyond it. The longer they stayed there, the more arrogantly they conducted themselves towards those who came to support them, and the more they splintered into various committees that squabbled amongst one another for control. In this respect, the students, many of whom had parents victimized during the anti-rightist campaign and the Cultural Revolution, subconsciously mimicked the political behaviour passed down to them. They were so removed from the reality of the daily lives of most Chinese that they could not communicate with them, as given allegorical expression by Jian when a passionate man from a provincial region, perhaps Sichuan or Shanxi, insists that he be allowed to speak to the assembled students in the square.

After a discussion, the students in command of the radio station allow him to speak after he offers 10,000 yuan for the privilege. Money flowed freely in the square, coming from all over China and Hong Kong, but no one could keep track of it, much less direct its expenditure, perhaps another parable by Jian, this time about the capitalization of protest. In this instance, the students took the money and allowed the man to speak for about 5 minutes, but finally turned off the microphone because his dialect was incomprehensible. It never occurred to them that the problem was not that he couldn't speak to them in a way that was understandable, but that they were incapable of hearing what he had to say. Students, like Dai Wei and his girlfriend, Tian Yi, could thoughtfully address these sorts of problems when speaking together within the boundaries of their personal relationships, but seemingly lost the ability to do so within larger groups.

Herein lies the tragedy of 1989 and the subsequent neoliberalization of China. Many, including Dai Wei's mother, found solace in Falun Gong. This is an aspect of the novel that doesn't seem to draw much critical attention. Surprisingly, Jian presents the allure of it for people like Dai Wei's mother sympathetically, through characters suffused with a warmth and humility that is, with a few exceptions, lacking in the participants in the student movement. Or, more accurately, lacking until the movement is violently suppressed, and they are expelled from the utopian life of protest, where all things are seemingly possible, into one in which they must make painful choices, if they are lucky enough to have choices at all. Jian is more empathetic to those caught up in the crackdown on Falun Gong, like Dai Wei's mother and her mentor, than he is to the victims of Tiananmen, primarily, it seems, because the adherents of Falun Gong were only seizing upon an erzatz spirituality to alleviate the insecurity of their daily lives.

Falun Gong and the student movement are therefore opposite sides of the same coin of liberation. As elaborated by Jian, the practitioners of Falon Gong acted compassionately towards one another in the service of a religion that falsely attributed all sorts of powers to those who scrupulously followed its precepts, while the students conducted themselves in an elitist fashion towards those they purportedly represented, even though they did have, as Marxists used to say, the right line, or, at least, a lot closer to it than Falun Gong. The novel concludes as Dai Wei is about to awake as a new man, and leaves us with the question, is he now someone capable of bridging this gap, or merely someone who, like many others before him, will find a way to enrich himself and separate himself from the misery around him.

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