Tuesday, June 28, 2011

No one living in a dictatorship has a healthy state of mind

I just finished up Ma Jian's Beijing Coma and wow. Just...wow. Obviously I've mentioned on here a number of times that this is a long book. I did a whole whining post about how I wanted to break this up with another book. It wasn't solely the length that made me want to put this down and pick up something else. This is an emotionally draining book.

If you already know all about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the events leading up to it, congratulations, you're starting out in a better place than me. It's embarrassing how little I know about Chinese history of any time period and especially when it concerns years I was actually alive. Granted I was all of 5 when this happened and my high school history classes never seemed to make it past the Industrial Revolution but still. Literally the only thing I even recognized about it before starting this book is Tank Man. So on the one hand, yay I'm a blank slate going into this book. On the other hand oh my God, this can't really be real. How could this happen? How could I not know?

Beijing Coma tells the story of Dai Wei, who has been in a coma due to a gunshot would to the head during the massacre. The story jumps between Dai Wei's memories and the present day. He recalls his early life as the child of a "rightest", his university days, and primarily the escalating protests in Tianament Square, where he is head of security. His present day covers his years in the coma, being take care of by his mother who was at first an adamant supporter of the Party but slowly changes her mind. He finds out how things changed after the protest, what happened to his friends, girlfriends, brother.

His memories around the weeks of protest are certainly the primary focus, but I preferred his early life and the coma sections more. I suppose there's this assumption that there is a darkness before the dawn. The massacre is certainly the darkness so afterwards things had to improve in Beijing. But they don't, not for Dai Wei's family, certainly not for his mother, who was my favorite character. She's at once resentful she has to take care of her comatose son, often wishing him dead, while at the same time completely devoted to him. You can feel her frustrations, and she never comes off as some one-dimensional monster. She can't work because caring for Dai Wei is a full time job, yet she can't even get proper care for him because of his involvement in the protests.
At one point, she has to sell one of Dai Wei's kidneys in order to get money to keep caring for him. There are so many acts of desperation I don't know why this one stands out so much for me, but it did. It isn't the worst thing depicted, but it's the one I guess that I can actually wrap my head around.
*Continue on. You're safe from spoilers now*

Dai Wei seems to get caught up in the fervor of the protests but never seems to really care about what everything is for. He doesn't slack at his job, but he's just going along with everyone else. And there is so much in-fighting as different students struggle for power of the square. That got repetitive and would have benefited from some culling.It was the same fights over and over again that they began to blur together. I suppose that itself says something for the mood of the time, but I had trouble staying focused.

Overall this was an incredible, heartbreaking, terrifying book and I'm extremely glad I read it, despite any of my whining to the contrary.

Sidenote: Not only does Kindle let you highlight and make notes, but it keeps track of everything and gives you a total. With previous books I've had maybe 20 at the most notes/highlights. This time I have 71. Granted this book is long but it's still a greater amount than the other ebooks I've read. There is so much here I wanted to go back to, so much I was ignorant of and Ma Jian has a way with words that many of these passages could stand alone without the book feeling like a cobbled together series of quotes. Although I suppose the compliments of the language go almost as much to the translator Flora Drew.

Title quote from location 3749

Jian, Ma. Beijing Coma. Trans. Flora Drew. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2008. Kindle edition