Cage of bones

Christine Smallwood is associate literary editor at the Nation and co-editor of the Crier.

WHEN THE Chinese writer Ma Jian was in his 20s, he and some friends went to a graveyard, where they found that some of the bodies, half-decomposed, had become unearthed. But they weren't scared or disgusted. Instead, they got closer. Using a stick, Ma recalls, "We removed the body parts. We wanted to take them home and wash them and keep them in formula."

This scene, which Ma shared when I met him and his translator and partner, Flora Drew, in New York during the recent PEN World Voices Festival, is one that would fit easily into his work. If you've read "Red Dust," about his travels in China, or his fiction in translation -- "The Noodle Maker" and "Stick Out Your Tongue" -- you know that he's keenly attuned to the feeling of being a body in the world. His characters remark on the smell of someone's skin or the odor that rises from between the toes; they feel their bellies swell and their joints ache. But their bodies are always in danger of falling apart: In one story, a woman feeds herself to a tiger during a theatrical performance; in another, two brothers, married to the same woman, carve up her corpse and feed it to the birds in a Tibetan "sky burial." The body can give its hostage soul fleeting moments of ecstasy, but it's easily reduced to something without dignity or grace, a piece of lumpen meat.

Ma's new novel, "Beijing Coma," is equally attuned to this notion of the body as a "fleshy tomb." When the story opens, Dai Wei is lying in a coma, a bullet in his brain. A piece of his skull remains in the hospital refrigerator; soft spongy skin has grown over the wound. He is blind, mute and paralyzed but still able to hear. From his bed, he recalls his youth and the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, where he was shot.

Ma sees a clear link between the body and political repression. As a child growing up under communism, he was taken to execution parades and witnessed people being thrown off the tops of the buildings. "The Communist Party can not only destroy people's souls, but they can also destroy your body," he says. "They can devour your flesh. . . . The Chinese people understand that bodies are made up of little pieces. They walk through the streets and see body parts in the streets. There's no confidence that the body can remain intact very long."

In 1987, just before "Stick Out Your Tongue" was published in China, Ma moved to Hong Kong. He was painting pictures of sunflowers one day to earn extra money when he turned on the television and saw his face on the screen. "Stick Out Your Tongue" was being targeted as part of a campaign against spiritual pollution. "I came away with this feeling that when these powerful nations decide to silence you, they can make you disappear and disintegrate, like a character in one of Kafka's novels," he remembers.

It was in Hong Kong that he met Drew, a British woman working on a documentary for U.S. television. The two moved to London in 1997, where they live with their two small children, Jack and Isabella. (He has a daughter in China from a previous marriage.)

Ma is free to travel in China, but he can't publish or make public statements. He lives in a double isolation: As a foreigner in the West, he speaks no English, writes in Chinese and is read only in translation. Versions of "The Noodle Maker" and "Red Dust" have been published in China under pseudonyms but so heavily censored as to be what Drew calls "unreadable." Yet when he goes home, he is rarely alone. On his last trip back, he visited, for the first time, his grandfather's village. (Since his grandfather had been a landowner whose crop was tea, he was killed during the Cultural Revolution by being deprived of liquids.) The town was eight hours from Ma's family home in Qingdao. Even before he returned, they had already been visited by police who wanted to know what he was doing.

It took Ma 10 years to complete "Beijing Coma" (Drew managed to translate it in two). Though it is devoted to the day-to-day, minute-by-minute events of Tiananmen's occupation, the original idea for the story had little to do with politics. "It all started," Ma says, "with a mental picture of a comatose patient lying on a bed with a beam of light shining on his naked chest and a bird nestling in his armpit. I didn't even know it would be a book about Tiananmen at the moment -- I just wanted to know what concept of the passing of time this comatose man would have."

The two strands -- the coma and Tiananmen, the soul locked in the body and the students locked in the square -- come from an incident in Ma's own life. In June 1989, he returned to Beijing to join the demonstrations. But a few days before the tanks rolled in, his older brother, Ma Jianguo, ran into a washing line while crossing the road, fell back on his head and went into a coma. Ma left Beijing and returned to his native Qingdao, where he helped care for his brother until he emerged from the coma into the semi-vegetative state in which he remains today. "After about six months, he was able to open his eyes and move his hands, and he wrote the name of his first girlfriend. Even though he was in this comatose state, he was still more alive inside than the society outside -- he was being brought alive by his memories, whereas everyone else was beginning to erase his memories."

Dai Wei's memories of Tiananmen Square come back as straight dialogue from the student leaders, many of whom are based on the real people. The picture that emerges is not an altogether pretty one. They're brave and passionate but also petty, disorganized and indecisive. Some are in favor of overthrowing the party; some just want to be allowed to date openly. They don't know what to do with all the funds donated to the cause, so when it gets really dangerous, they take the money and run, only to slink back a few hours later. Those from Beijing squabble with those from the provinces. They break up, fall in love and stage a wedding. They make and dissolve federations and councils, war over broadcast stations and stage coups, mirroring the power games of the party itself. In the balance hang the lives of workers and students who have joined them. While they bicker, a hunger strike threatens the health of thousands.

" 'You're all starving to death,' Old Fu whispered, trying not to disturb the discussion Mao Da was chairing. 'Where do you find the energy to engage in these power struggles?' "

Ma wrote "Beijing Coma" in part to preserve a past that the party has largely wiped out. "Since the events of Tiananmen, the generations that have followed have no history," he explained. "The only memories they have are those that have been poured into their heads by the party." But the book is bigger than Tiananmen. It's an anthropology of protest, a story of losing control. The student leaders become captives to their own crowd, unable to stay or leave, forced to play it out.

As the story unfolds, we learn that they share the inheritance of parents who suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Tian Yi's mother had her pubic hair shaved and, humiliated, committed suicide; Wang Fei's father was tortured and wound up in an asylum. Dai Wei's father, a violinist, was branded a rightist and worked for 20 years in a forced labor camp where he had to resort to cannibalism.

And yet, Dai Wei's mother persists in her efforts to win the party's favor, giving up only when her son's "counter-revolutionary" behavior destroys that dream. For the 10 years he lies silently in his iron bed, she complains incessantly, asking him to hurry up and die. She doesn't change his sheets as often as she should, and yes, she sells one of his kidneys to try to make ends meet. But a son who ruined your life is still a son. She massages his toes and hands to keep them loose and rarely strays farther than the kitchen.

"Beijing Coma" is a strange, and long, book, by turns dull and riveting. Plot alone isn't enough to sustain interest: We all know how the story ends. What holds our attention, rather, is the fickleness and weakness of human nature. By the time martial law is declared, the individual players have become a hydra, a single body with many barking heads. Ma says that "all the characters in this book are just one character"; they have "emerged from the same background and education and are in fact indistinguishable."

The dialogue has to do a lot of work ("Dai Wei! Can you hear me? It's your mother . . . My God! His eyelids are moving. They're really moving."). But the method has its rewards. "Beijing Coma" doesn't just explain what happened in the spring of 1989. It lives all its breathless hope and anxiety, its immaturity and optimism and terror and monotony, its courage and tragedy, from inside the prison of Dai Wei's living corpse. *

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