A Walk-on Part in the War (f)or a Lead Role in a Cage?
Every generation in every country has its moment, the point at which the anguish, brutality or challenge of life comes down from the heavens and causes us to question our reality. For the generation preceding mine, it was the Vietnam War. For many of my American peers, it was watching the Challenger explosion in 1986. For my students, it was the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
But for me, living as I was at that time in India, it was the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber. My innocence was shattered that day, just as it was for millions of young people in India who watched a gregarious, confident politician get blown to pieces with a bomb placed in a traditional flower garland.
I have a recollection of another memory from that time, as well: an image of a man standing in front of a caravan of tanks. The date was 4 June 1989 and the place was Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. I could not comprehend at that time—and not even till recently—how great his sacrifice was and what he stood for. But just as Chicago poet Carl Sandburg described his city as that of broad shoulders, so too were the shoulders epically broad of that young man as an entire country rested on them.
The event that became known as the Tiananmen Square Riot was China’s moment for an entire generation. It was just one event on one day in a several decades-long, people’s struggle against a totalitarian regime. The location was no coincidence because the Square had a towering significance in the hearts of the Chinese. As writer Ma Jian has said, “Tiananmen Square was the heart of our nation, a vast open space where millions of tiny cells could gather together and forget themselves and, more important, forget the thick, oppressive walls that enclosed them.”
It is fitting then that the Chinese people would be gifted the latest novel by Jian, titled Beijing Coma, because it is a staggering, epic encomium to the symbolism of Tiananmen Square and to his generation’s struggles to have their voices heard. Only a master storyteller could have channeled the hopes and dreams of China’s oppressed into a readable, 700-page novel. But, what makes this book so compelling is Jian’s technique, heavy on flashback, as he moves between the current life of his protagonist, Dai Wei, who is coming out of a coma, and then his memories, as they move towards the day, the moment, when Wei’s life changed forever, when he is shot during the riot.
The brutality of the Chinese government’s war against its own people is described in detail and at times, Beijing Coma reads like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. We read about prisoners in labor camps who, faced with starvation, resort to cannibalism, eating maggots, and picking out undigested food from feces. Jian mentions the government’s one-child policy and the punishments for women who had more than one child—emergency Caesarean section, sometimes without anesthesia, and the fetus drowned or injected with alcohol in front of the mother’s eyes. In one of the most chilling examples of state-sponsored terrorism, Dai Wei is informed that his paternal grandfather was branded a traitor of the government and he was punished by being buried alive—by his own son.
Everything about Wei’s story is emblematic of the Chinese people’s struggles against their government. He grows up in the shadow of his father, Dai Changjie, who has spent time in the United States, but returns to China and is soon branded a “rightist” and a political enemy of the government. When the father returns home after a stint in labor camp, he regales his son with stories of not just life in America, but also the harsh realities of being a political dissident.
Wei succumbs to his father’s “liberal” thoughts and begins to challenge the society around him immediately. He takes his activist stance to college and then graduate school, where he spends his days organizing protests, rallies, and hunger strikes, but his nights with women or discussing Freud, Hemingway, Kafka, and Marquez with his friends. As Jian writes, “We were a generation with empty minds. We thirsted for knowledge. Now that China had opened its doors to the West, we devoured every scrap of information that blew in.”
Jian’s writing is tense, thorough, and gorgeous. Every sentence has meaning, every paragraph is essential and every page is packed with activity. From one perspective, Beijing Coma should be essential reading to students in Iran and across the world who need a manual on student activism. So much of the book is a narrative of college life with themes that anyone who has ever been in college could relate to—challenging parental expectations, finding and losing love, figuring out one’s place in life, depression and suicide.
But, from a deeper, literary and philosophical perspective, this book should be read by all who love historical, conscientious fiction. This is a work related to China and the Chinese struggle for liberty and democracy, but Wei’s situation could appeal to anyone. Like Javier Bardem’s turn as a quadriplegic in The Sea Inside (2004), is Dai Wei freer because he can’t participate? As he asks, “Do I really want to wake from this deep sleep and rejoin the comatose crowds outside?” His questions should make us question ourselves as well. What does it mean to want to live when everyone around you wants to die? How does it feel to only be able to hear and observe without the ability to speak or to speak out?
It is almost impossible not to see the symbolism and allegorical quality of everything in this excellent novel. Wei’s birth, struggles, activism, accident, and quasi-death are not just phases of his life, but of many of his generation in China. Even the title is a hint that the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing may not have been well accepted by all Chinese. Were then the Olympics a sign of China’s birth or, as Jian suggests, its death?