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Cage of bones

Beijing Coma A Novel Ma Jian Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 586 pp., $27.50

May 25, 2008|Christine Smallwood | Christine Smallwood is associate literary editor at the Nation and co-editor of the Crier.

WHEN THE Chinese writer Ma Jian was in his 20s, he and some friends went to a graveyard, where they found that some of the bodies, half-decomposed, had become unearthed. But they weren't scared or disgusted. Instead, they got closer. Using a stick, Ma recalls, "We removed the body parts. We wanted to take them home and wash them and keep them in formula."

This scene, which Ma shared when I met him and his translator and partner, Flora Drew, in New York during the recent PEN World Voices Festival, is one that would fit easily into his work. If you've read "Red Dust," about his travels in China, or his fiction in translation -- "The Noodle Maker" and "Stick Out Your Tongue" -- you know that he's keenly attuned to the feeling of being a body in the world. His characters remark on the smell of someone's skin or the odor that rises from between the toes; they feel their bellies swell and their joints ache. But their bodies are always in danger of falling apart: In one story, a woman feeds herself to a tiger during a theatrical performance; in another, two brothers, married to the same woman, carve up her corpse and feed it to the birds in a Tibetan "sky burial." The body can give its hostage soul fleeting moments of ecstasy, but it's easily reduced to something without dignity or grace, a piece of lumpen meat.

Ma's new novel, "Beijing Coma," is equally attuned to this notion of the body as a "fleshy tomb." When the story opens, Dai Wei is lying in a coma, a bullet in his brain. A piece of his skull remains in the hospital refrigerator; soft spongy skin has grown over the wound. He is blind, mute and paralyzed but still able to hear. From his bed, he recalls his youth and the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, where he was shot.

Ma sees a clear link between the body and political repression. As a child growing up under communism, he was taken to execution parades and witnessed people being thrown off the tops of the buildings. "The Communist Party can not only destroy people's souls, but they can also destroy your body," he says. "They can devour your flesh. . . . The Chinese people understand that bodies are made up of little pieces. They walk through the streets and see body parts in the streets. There's no confidence that the body can remain intact very long."

In 1987, just before "Stick Out Your Tongue" was published in China, Ma moved to Hong Kong. He was painting pictures of sunflowers one day to earn extra money when he turned on the television and saw his face on the screen. "Stick Out Your Tongue" was being targeted as part of a campaign against spiritual pollution. "I came away with this feeling that when these powerful nations decide to silence you, they can make you disappear and disintegrate, like a character in one of Kafka's novels," he remembers.

It was in Hong Kong that he met Drew, a British woman working on a documentary for U.S. television. The two moved to London in 1997, where they live with their two small children, Jack and Isabella. (He has a daughter in China from a previous marriage.)

Ma is free to travel in China, but he can't publish or make public statements. He lives in a double isolation: As a foreigner in the West, he speaks no English, writes in Chinese and is read only in translation. Versions of "The Noodle Maker" and "Red Dust" have been published in China under pseudonyms but so heavily censored as to be what Drew calls "unreadable." Yet when he goes home, he is rarely alone. On his last trip back, he visited, for the first time, his grandfather's village. (Since his grandfather had been a landowner whose crop was tea, he was killed during the Cultural Revolution by being deprived of liquids.) The town was eight hours from Ma's family home in Qingdao. Even before he returned, they had already been visited by police who wanted to know what he was doing.

It took Ma 10 years to complete "Beijing Coma" (Drew managed to translate it in two). Though it is devoted to the day-to-day, minute-by-minute events of Tiananmen's occupation, the original idea for the story had little to do with politics. "It all started," Ma says, "with a mental picture of a comatose patient lying on a bed with a beam of light shining on his naked chest and a bird nestling in his armpit. I didn't even know it would be a book about Tiananmen at the moment -- I just wanted to know what concept of the passing of time this comatose man would have."

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