Dai Wei, in coma da dieci anni, è doppiamente prigioniero. Il 4 giugno 1989 è stato colpito alla testa da un proiettile durante la rivolta di piazza Tienanmen. Da allora "vive" su un letto di ferro: prigioniero del proprio corpo, prigioniero della polizia, che aspetta il suo risveglio per arrestarlo. Tutto ciò che rimane a Dai Wei per non perdere il contatto con il mondo è la sua acutissima sensibilità per le piccole cose che gli succedono intorno e una dolorosa e poetica capacità di dialogare con il proprio corpo. Mentre Dai Wei giace, immobile nel cambiamento, assistito dalla madre, la capitale della Cina cambia e lui ripercorre i giorni della rivolta studentesca - ma anche il decennio della Rivoluzione culturale - attraverso i ricordi: le mobilitazioni degli universitari di Beijing e le interminabili discussioni politiche, gli slogan gridati e i sentimenti sussurrati con riserbo. E intanto, forse, si risveglia a un nuovo inizio, mentre l'isolato dove si trova la piccola casa in cui abita viene abbattuto, con la vecchia Cina che muore, per far posto a uno stadio, il Nido, per le Olimpiadi del 2008.
Circling the Square
By JESS ROW Published: July 13, 2008
The Chinese character “rou,” meaning “flesh” or “meat,” is a three-sided figure with two sets of diagonal slashes inside, meant to resemble a flayed carcass. It’s an instantly memorable, if unpalatable, image, and the same is true of the Chinese title of Ma Jian’s new novel. “Rou Tu” (“tu” means “earth” or “land”) translates, awkwardly, as “Meat Earth” or perhaps “Land of Flesh.” It’s not difficult to see why Ma’s English-language publishers chose “Beijing Coma” instead. But once you’ve heard it, it’s as difficult to forget “Rou Tu” as it is to shake the image of one of the narrator’s comrades crushed by a tank on Changan Avenue in Beijing on June 4, 1989: “Her face was completely flat. A mess of black hair obscured her elongated mouth.”
Make no mistake: in “Beijing Coma” Ma Jian takes as a given Stephen Dedalus’s dictum, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And not just for his protagonist, Dai Wei — who has lain in a waking coma, conscious but paralyzed, since he was shot leaving Tiananmen Square — but also for most of the moving, breathing people who surround him. Trapped in Dai Wei’s mind, we move chronologically through his childhood in the Cultural Revolution, his adventures as a lovesick college student and his involvement in the student movement, and then through China’s transformative decade, from 1989 to the millennium, as he overhears it from a bed in his aging mother’s apartment.
Everywhere we look, China is, literally and figuratively, consuming its young. Early in life, Dai Wei is haunted by the story of Liu Ping, a 16-year-old girl who, during the Cultural Revolution, was killed and eaten by people in her village after the authorities instructed them that “if you don’t eat the enemy, you are the enemy.” Decades later, as he lies helplessly in bed, his mother becomes so desperate for money that she begins marketing his urine as a miracle cure and later sells one of his kidneys to a wealthy businessman.
Of course, the primary act of Chinese self-cannibalism in “Beijing Coma” is the Tiananmen Square uprising itself, and here Ma Jian makes a very significant strategic choice. Instead of glossing over the protests and focusing on the bloody aftermath, he presents a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute account of the immensely complex student movement that led up to the events of June 4. As head of security for student protesters from Beijing University, Dai Wei is ideally placed, for dramatic purposes, on the periphery of the leadership, observing his peers as they struggle and squabble, devising new strategies and slogans, trying to best one another’s moral authority even as tanks roll into the square.
This part of the novel — which is actually the bulk of the novel — involves a very large cast of characters, as well as a dizzying attention to detail, and as such it achieves the mimetic effect of leaving the reader as distracted, ennervated and confused as Dai Wei himself. Ultimately, it’s a small price to pay. As venal and self-serving as these students can be, Ma never lets us forget the immense weight of history that rests on their shoulders. We grow to respect and love them not because they are ennobled by circumstances — they’re not — but because they fervently believe, against all odds, that some good can emerge from the wreckage of their childhoods and the unbearable losses of their parents’ generation.
Most of Dai Wei’s friends who survive the aftermath of Tiananmen Square — torture, imprisonment, endless rounds of self-criticism — leave politics behind and embrace the guiding motto of the Deng Xiaoping era: “To get rich is glorious.” One of them, Dai Wei’s first illicit girlfriend, goes into real estate and buys his mother’s building, intending to raze it as part of Beijing’s redevelopment in preparation for the Olympics. Driven insane by her own imprisonment after a brief flirtation with Falun Gong, Dai Wei’s mother refuses to budge, and the novel ends as the building is torn down around her and her son — two victims of the Chinese state, one mute, one mad, able to do nothing but place their bodies in the way of bulldozers. Anyone who has followed the news from China over the last decade can recall similar images. Here, as he does throughout “Beijing Coma,” Ma stays close — painfully close — to the historical record.
That indelible final image of protest, coupled with Ma’s insistence on telling the story of the Tiananmen protests in such fastidious detail, makes “Beijing Coma” not only an extraordinarily effective novel but also an important political statement, appearing as it does immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. In a preface included in the Chinese edition, Ma makes his intentions explicit, arguing that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: “Inside Dai Wei,” he writes, “there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.” In this sense, for all its savagery, “Beijing Coma” is one of the most optimistic novels I’ve encountered in a long time.
Jess Row is the author of “The Train to Lo Wu,” a collection of short stories. He teaches at the College of New Jersey.