In: Criticism

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

I’ve been reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma at the office, reading anywhere from ten fifteen pages a day, and and though I’m only seventy pages in, it’s turning out to be a good book.

A damn good book. Jian has a beautiful, careful way with detail that sucks me into the political culture of Cold War-era China. His storytelling is utterly fascinating. Beijing Coma is told entirely from the random, unconnected memories of a man who’s only vaguely aware that he’s in a coma, which gives the book a very dreamy-nightmarish aspect. The atrocities committed by China’s ruling communist party–ranging from genocide to forced abortion–are horrifying. He describes a populace that lives in a state of constant paranoia, where mingling with wrong person (an American music conductor, for instance), or reading the wrong books can earn someone a beating by the police, or twenty years of "rehabilitation" in a hard labor camp (where starving laborers are often reduced to cannibalism and eating each other’s feces), where praising the party is done merely to keep up appearances and avoid being branded as a "rightist."

Sound a little familiar? George Orwell’s 1984 may read like a parody of life under communist rule (which serves to drive home Orwell’s point), but Jian’s book, while similar in many respects, doesn’t give you the comfort of an entirely make-believe world. By blurring the line between past and present, Jian closes the distance between China and the West with frightening ease, and reveals a China that’s eerily similar to Oceania–but ruled by a regime that’s far more brutal than Big Brother’s Party.

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