Beijing Coma

Paperback | May 5, 2009

byMa JianTranslated byFlora Drew

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Knopf Canada is proud to welcome to the list one of the world’s most significant living writers. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty and deep rage, Beijing Coma is the epic new novel from prize-winning author Ma Jian. It is his masterpiece.

“One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.” Gao Xingjian, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Dai Wei is a medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. Caught by a soldier’s bullet, he falls into a deep coma; as soon as the hospital authorities discover he is an activist, his mother is forced to take him home. She allows pharmacists access to Dai Wei’s body and sells his urine and his left kidney to fund special treatment from Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect. But during a government crackdown, the Master is arrested and Dai Wei’s mother–who has fallen in love with him–loses her mind.
The millennium draws near and Dai Wei has been in a coma for almost a decade. A sparrow flies through the window and lands on his naked chest; it is a sign that Dai Wei must emerge from his dry cocoon. But China has also undergone a massive transformation in the time that he has been absent. As he prepares to take leave of his old metal bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is a startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.

“At the heart of Ma Jian’s stories there is both humanity and a piercing, if painful, literary truth.” The Guardian (UK)

From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher

Knopf Canada is proud to welcome to the list one of the world’s most significant living writers. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty and deep rage, Beijing Coma is the epic new novel from prize-winning author Ma Jian. It is his masterpiece. “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.” Gao Xingjian, winner of...

From the Jacket

"Once in a while – perhaps every 10 years, or even every generation – a novel appears that profoundly questions the way we look at the world, and at ourselves. Beijing Coma is a poetic examination not just of a country at a defining moment in its history, but of the universal right to remember and to hope. It is, in every sense, a land...

Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. After working as a photojournalist for a state-run magazine, he left China for Hong Kong in 1987 but continued to return to China, notably to support the pro-democracy activist in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He is the author of Red Dust, winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Noodle ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:592 pages, 8.89 × 5.85 × 1.22 inPublished:May 5, 2009Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307397211

ISBN - 13:9780307397218

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Read from the Book

Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you’re going to have to take your life seriously.You reach for a pillow and tuck it under your shoulders, propping up your head so that the blood in your brain can flow back down into your heart, allowing your thoughts to clear a little. Your mother used to prop you up like that from time to time.Silvery mornings are always filled with new intentions. But today is the first day of the new millennium, so the dawn is thicker with them than ever.Although the winter frosts haven’t set in yet, the soft breeze blowing on your face feels very cold.A smell of urine still hangs in the room. It seeps from your pores when the sunlight falls on your skin.You gaze outside. The morning air isn’t rising from the ground as it did yesterday. Instead, it’s falling from the sky onto the treetops, then moving slowly through the leaves, brushing past the bloodstained letter caught in the branches, absorbing moisture as it falls.Before the sparrow arrived, you had almost stopped thinking about flight. Then, last winter, it soared through the sky and landed in front of you, or more precisely on the windowsill of the covered balcony adjoining your bedroom. You knew the grimy windowpanes were caked with dead ants and dust, and smelt as sour as the curtains. But the sparrow wasn’t put off. It jumped inside the covered balcony and ruffled its feathers, releasing a sweet smell of tree bark into the air. Then it flew into your bedroom, landed on your chest and stayed there like a cold egg.Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles of your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears. Saliva drips onto the soft palate at the back of your mouth. A reflex is triggered, and the palate rises, closing off the nasal passage and allowing the saliva to flow into your pharynx. The muscles of the oesophagus, which have been dormant for so many years, contract, projecting the saliva down into your stomach. A bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex, down the spinal cord to a muscle fibre at the tip of your finger.You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning.‘Waa, waaah . . .’A baby’s choked cry cuts through the fetid air. A tiny naked body seems to be trembling on a cold concrete floor . . . It’s me. I’ve crawled out between my mother’s legs, my head splitting with pain. I bat my hand in the pool of blood that gathers around me . . . My mother often recounted how she was forced to wear a shirt embroidered with the words wife of a rightist when she gave birth to me. The doctor on duty didn’t dare offer to help bring this ‘son of a capitalist dog’ into the world. Fortunately, my mother passed out after her waters broke, so she didn’t feel any pain when I pushed myself out into the hospital corridor.And now, all these years later, I, too, am lying unconscious in a hospital. Only the occasional sound of glass injection ampoules being snapped open tells me that I’m still alive.Yes, it’s me. My mother’s eldest son. The eyes of a buried frog flash through my mind. It’s still alive. It was I who trapped it in the jar and buried it in the earth . . . The dark corridor outside is very long. At the end of it is the operating room, where bodies are handled like mere heaps of flesh . . . And the girl I see now - what’s her name? A-Mei. She’s walking towards me, just a white silhouette. She has no smell. Her lips are trembling.I’m lying on a hospital bed, just as my father did before he died. I’m Dai Wei - the seed that he left behind. Am I beginning to remember things? I must be alive, then. Or perhaps I’m fading away, flitting, one last time, through the ruins of my past. No, I can’t be dead. I can hear noises. Death is silent.‘He’s just pretending to be dead . . .’ my mother mumbles to someone. ‘I can’t eat this pak choi. It’s full of sand.’It’s me she’s talking about. I hear a noise close to my ear. It’s somebody’s colon rumbling.Where’s my mouth? My face? I can see a yellow blur before my eyes, but can’t smell anything yet. I hear a baby crying somewhere in the distance and occasionally a thermos flask being filled with hot water.The yellow light splinters. Perhaps a bird just flew across the sky. I sense that I’m waking from a long sleep. Everything sounds new and unfamiliar.What happened to me? I see Tian Yi and me hand in hand, running for our lives. Is that a memory? Did it really happen? Tanks roll towards us. There are fires burning everywhere, and the sound of screaming . . . And what about now? Did I pass out when the tanks rolled towards me? Is this still the same day?When my father was lying in hospital waiting to die, the stench of dirty sheets and rotten orange peel was sometimes strong enough to mask the pervasive smell of rusty metal beds. When the evening sky blocked up the window, the filthy curtains merged into the golden sunlight and the room became slightly more transparent, and enabled me at least to sense that my father was still alive . . . On that last afternoon, I didn’t dare look at him. I turned instead to the window, and stared at the red slogan raise the glorious red flag of marxism and struggle boldly onwards hanging on the roof of the hospital building behind, and at the small strip of sky above it . . .During those last days of his life, my father talked about the three years he spent as a music student in America. He mentioned a girl from California whom he’d met when he was there. She was called Flora, which means flower in Latin. He said that when she played the violin, she would look down at the floor and he could gaze at her long eyelashes. She’d promised to visit him in Beijing after she left college. But by the time she graduated, China had become a communist country, and no foreigners were allowed inside.I remember the black, rotten molar at the side of his mouth. While he spoke to us in hospital, he’d stroke his cotton sheet and the urinary catheter inserted into his abdomen underneath.‘Technically speaking, he’s a vegetable,’ says a nurse to my right. ‘But at least the IV fluid is still entering his vein. That’s a good a sign.’ She seems to be speaking through a face mask and tearing a piece of muslin. The noises vibrate through me, and for a moment I gain a vague sense of the size and weight of my body.If I’m a vegetable, I must have been lying here unconscious for some time. So, am I waking up now?My father comes into view again. His face is so blurred, it looks as though I’m seeing it through a wire mesh. My father was also attached to an intravenous drip when he breathed his last breath. His left eyeball reflected like a windowpane the roof of the hospital building behind, a slant of sky and a few branches of a tree. If I were to die now, my closed eyes wouldn’t reflect a thing.Perhaps I only have a few minutes left to live, and this is just a momentary recovery of consciousness before death.‘Huh! I’m probably wasting my time here. He’s never going to wake up.’ My mother’s voice sounds both near and far away. It floats through the air. Maybe this is how noises sounded to my father just before he died.In those last few moments of his life, the oxygen mask on his face and the plastic tube inserted into his nose looked superfluous. Had the nurses not been regularly removing the phlegm from his throat, or pouring milk into his stomach through a rubber feeding tube, he would have died on that metal bed weeks before. Just as he was about to pass away, I sensed his eyes focus on me. I was tugging my brother’s shirt. The cake crumbs in his hands scattered onto my father’s sheet. He was trying to climb onto my father’s bed. The key hanging from his neck clunked against the metal bed frame. I yanked the strap of his leather satchel with such force that it snapped in half.‘Get down!’ my mother shouted, her eyes red with fury. My brother burst into tears. I fell silent.A second later, my father sank into the cage of medical equipment surrounding him and entered my memory. Life and death had converged inside his body. It had all seemed so simple.‘He’s gone,’ the nurse said, without taking off her face mask. With the tip of her shoe, she flicked aside the discarded chopsticks and cotton wool she’d used to clear his phlegm, then told my mother to go to reception and complete the required formalities. If his body wasn’t taken to the mortuary before midnight, my mother would be charged another night for the hospital room. Director Guo, the personnel officer of the opera company my parents belonged to, advised my mother to apply for my father’s posthumous political rehabilitation, pointing out that the compensation money could help cover the hospital fees.My father stopped breathing and became a corpse. His body lay on the bed, as large as before. I stood beside him, with his watch on my wrist.After the cremation, my mother stood at the bus stop cradling the box of ashes in her arms and said, ‘Your father’s last words were that he wanted his ashes buried in America. That rightist! Even at the point of death he refused to repent.’ As our bus approached, she cried out, ‘At least from now on we won’t have to live in a constant state of fear!’She placed the box of ashes under her iron bed. Before I went to sleep, I’d often pull it out and take a peek inside. The more afraid I grew of the ashes, the more I wanted to gaze at them. My mother said that if a friend of hers were to leave China, she’d give them the box and ask them to bury it abroad so that my father’s spirit could rise into a foreign heaven.‘You must go and study abroad, my son,’ my father often repeated to me when he was in hospital.So, I’m still alive . . . I may be lying in hospital, but at least I’m not dead. I’ve just been buried alive inside my body . . . I remember the day I caught that frog. Our teacher had told us to catch one so that we could later study their skeletons. After I caught my frog, I put it in a glass jar, pierced a hole in the metal cap, then buried it in the earth. Our teacher told us that worms and ants would crawl inside and eat away all the flesh within a month, leaving a clean skeleton behind. I bought some alcohol solution, ready to wipe off any scraps of flesh still remaining on the bones. But before the month was out, a family living on the ground floor of our building built a kitchen over the hole where I’d buried it.The frog must have become a skeleton years ago. While its bones lie trapped in the jar, I lie buried inside my body, waiting to die.A portion of your brain is still alive. You wander back and forth through the space between your flesh and your memories.I stare into my mind and glimpse a faint sketch of a scene. It’s the summer night in 1980 when my father arrived back home with a shaven head after he was finally released from the ‘reform-through-labour’ system in which he’d been confined for the previous twenty-two years. He walked into our single room in the opera company’s dormitory block and flung his dusty suitcase into the corner as though it were a bag of rubbish.My mother hadn’t gone to meet him at the station, although she was almost certain that he’d be arriving on that train.She gathered up the clothes, hat, belt and rubber-soled shoes that my father removed before he went to sleep that night, and threw them in the bin, together with his metal mug, face towel and toothbrush. She tried to throw away the journal he’d wrapped in sheets of news­papers, but my father snatched it back from her. He said he would need it for the memoirs he was planning to write.My mother made him promise that the journal didn’t contain the slightest criticism of the Communist Party or the socialist system. After my father assured her that it didn’t, she agreed to hide it in the wooden chest under their bed.My mother spent the whole of the next day scrubbing the room clean, trying to remove the smell of mould that my father had brought with him.The celebratory supper we had that night was a happy occasion. My brother and I had glasses set before us, both filled with rice wine. My mother climbed onto a stool to change the low-wattage bulb to a 40-watt one. It was so bright that you could see the spider’s web in the corner of the room.My mother had curled her hair with heated tongs. She told my brother to clear away his homework. Once he’d done this, the table looked much larger. The four of us sat down together in front of a steaming dish of braised pigs’ trotters. There was also a plate of fried peanuts on the table, and a bowl of cucumber and vermicelli salad that I’d bought from the market.I used to hate my father for the misery that his political status had inflicted on us. Because of him, I was ostracised and bullied at school. When my brother and I were walking through the school cafeteria at lunchtime one day, two older kids flicked onto the ground the plate of fried chicken I’d just bought, and shouted, ‘You’re the dog son of a member of the Five Black Categories. What makes you think you have the right to eat meat?’ Then they clipped me around the ears, right in front of my friend Lulu, who lived on the ground floor of our dormitory block.My father raised his glass to my mother and said, ‘May you stay young and beautiful for ever!’From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Once in a while – perhaps every 10 years, or even every generation – a novel appears that profoundly questions the way we look at the world, and at ourselves. Beijing Coma is a poetic examination not just of a country at a defining moment in its history, but of the universal right to remember and to hope. It is, in every sense, a landmark work of fiction" — Tash Aw, Daily Telegraph"Epic in scope but intimate in feeling … magnificent" — Tom Deveson, The Times"Simultaneously a large-scale portrait of citizens writing in the grip of the party and the state and a strikingly intimate study of the fragility of the body and the persistence of self and memory" — Chandrahas Choudhury, Observer“[Beijing Coma] merits the term ‘masterpiece’. . . . [T]he narrative strategy succeeds at creating suspense page after page and lends a poignant, inexorable flavour to the events after the massacre.” — The Vancouver Sun“A work of fiction so realistic that it can be read as a tragic memoir of a time of hope, turmoil and atrocity. . . . An immaculate lesson in history, it is a vivid reminder that all things change and all is swept away.” — The Owen Sound Sun Times“Already notorious for writing novels banned in his homeland due to their criticism of China's policies on human rights and Tibet, the now London-based Ma Jian here launches his most sustained and intricate indictment of his former country. . . . As novelist, he painstakingly recreates the cycle of idealism, arrogance, confusion and despair that characterized the experience of demonstrators on the ground in [Tiananmen] square.” — Toronto Star“[Beijing Coma] will make waves across the world. . . . Ma combines a gift for densely detailed, panoramic fiction with a resonant prophetic voice. . . . Beijing Coma may have huge documentary value, but it grips and moves as epic fiction above all . . . Beijing Coma has the visceral physicality that stamps all of Ma Jian's work. He is a poet of the body in all its ecstasies, embarrassments and agonies.” — The Independant “A huge achievement . . . a landmark account through fiction of a country whose rise has amazed the world, but which remains cloaked in shadows. . . . finely written and translated.” — The Times“This is an epic yet intimate work that deserves to be recognised and to endure as the great Tiananmen novel.”— Financial Times“This timely yet dazzling piece of fiction will be seen simply for what it is: a modern literary masterpiece.”— Sunday Express“This vivid, pungent, often blackly funny book is a mighty gesture of remembrance against the encroaching forces of silence.” — Guardian“Astonishingly brave… the most important Chinese book since Wild Swans.” — London Lite “[A] bleak, wrenching generational saga . . . Ma Jian achieves startling effects through Dai Wei’s dispassionate narration, making one man’s felled body a symbol of lost possibility.” — Publishers Weekly“One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.” — Gao Xingjian, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature“Ma Jian is arguably his country’s essential writer.” — The Globe and MailFrom the Hardcover edition.