Beijing Coma – A Novel

Ma Jian

Here’s something that might shock.

I tend to select my reading material based on the picture or detail on the book cover and this approach, though astonishing – works. Think Atonement, Blind Assassin, If nobody speaks of remarkable things, Small Island and The Little Friend to name but a handful of super reads. So, I was somewhat surprised with myself when I grabbed my husband (it was a Date), and headed down to Blackwell’s back in April last year, to listen to a panel discuss Chinese Literature with the distributors, real authors and translators.

Star struck as usual – for these people are published– I listened carefully and left 1.5 hours later, arms laden with my latest purchases – all chosen (mark my words) by topic, rather than the prettiness of the dustcover.

Fast forward to late August and I started to read Ma Jian’s, Beijing Coma.

A masterfully produced description of normal day life, aspirations and events, narrated by Dai Wei, a student whom was involved in the united protest which lead to the massacre of hundreds at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

Unlike your usual narrator, Dai Wei is in a coma, and at least to me, this is not the conventional way of seeing, reflecting, showing and telling a story…nevertheless this proves to be an ideal ‘vehicle’ for the reader to recognise and experience so many emotions, such as an shock, anger, injustice, sympathy and hope in a really effective and absorbing manner.

I shan’t lie to you…I found this a really tough read. It’s harsh and the tale told is not an easy one to digest, rather an incredibly important and powerful telling of Chinese history – shared on a very personal level.

And more truths. It took me around four months to complete, as I could only manage approx. 5 pages per day, as it’s not light reading – instead it’s literature that stays with you. You aren’t protected and swaddled kindly by the author, he gives it all – for instance, the challenges faced emotionally, socially and financially by a parent of a ‘dissident’; the horrors experienced by so many during and after the Cultural Revolution; and the stupid waste of precious life and talent that has occurred in my lifetime.

It’s hard going and thoroughly recommended.

And finally, the translator – Flora Drew – deserves very special mention.  For she has not only introduced me (and other readers of English) to a truly remarkable writer, she has done so without diminishing the impact of what’s being said.

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