Updated on August 5, 2015
27. ‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian
I can’t decide whether this is a badly written book or a badly rendered translation. I’ll probably never know unless I learn Chinese and read it in the original language. What baffles me is that this book has been given rave reviews, with Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian calling Jian “one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature”. But for me the whole thing fell flat. The writing was heavy-handed, boring and sometimes laughable.
The novel is told from the perspective of Dai Wei, a student and protester who is in a coma following the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprisings. He reflects about his life and his participation in the student movement, as well as taking note of the changing world around him and the people who visit him and move on. It’s an excellent concept for a novel – that very blurb sold it so me – but the way it’s executed is just so boring.
There are no chapters. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but each section is divided up by little asides in italics, in which Dai Wei describes the passing of time and the hopelessness of his situation. These become increasingly trite, especially as they make use of annoyingly fuzzy science. For example, “The eardrum and ossicles vibrate, striking the oval window of your inner ear, allowing the familiar tones of her voice to be carried up the cochlear nerve into your brain stem.” These unnecessarily clinical and often nonsensical jabberings happen every few pages and I found myself skipping them after a while. Just, ugh.
But my real problem lay with the style of the main narrative. It’s just deadly dull. Most of the time it’s robotic and emotionless, a sort of ‘this happened, then that happened’ narrative style. I noticed that, whenever Jian introduced a new character (and there were LOADS) he followed a formula that went something like this:
“Blah, blah, blah,” said X. X was [insert unrelated and largely irrelevant details about X here].
The whole narrative was punctuated by meaningless bits of information, so that I couldn’t help but wonder whether there’d been a shortage of editors when they were publishing this. For example, there’s a moment when Dai Wei is remembering an argument amongst the protesting students and suddenly lets us know that he “had a sudden longing to brush [his] teeth”. He doesn’t brush his teeth. They’re not talking about teeth. He doesn’t even think about it again. So why on earth would you mention it?
In the end I gave up on this book. It doesn’t happen often and I was about 400 pages in when I finally decided that life was too short to finish the thing. I’m still counting it as one of my 50, because I think I suffered through enough pages to justify it.
I think that the real problem is this. Sure, the book includes shocking accounts of human atrocities, deals with vital issues – the right to protest, freedom of speech – and describes a hugely important period of history, but you can’t just sail into greatness by confronting hard truths. If you’re going to deal with these things in a novel (as opposed to a textbook or a history) it also has to have interesting characters, good writing and a plot that makes the reader want to carry on. This book failed on all three of those counts so that, even after ploughing through more than two thirds of it, I simply didn’t care enough to keep reading.
This is one of the books I bought at the Hay on Wye Literature festival this year. Fortunately it was only £3.50 for the hardback, so I don’t feel like I’ve wasted too much money on it!
If you really want to try this book (I wouldn’t recommend it), you can buy it here. I think you’d be better off reading Wild Swans instead – a genuinely moving, shocking, well-written book, about China’s cultural revolution.