AP Photo/Jeff Widener
In a 2004 piece by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, recently exhibited at the Guggenheim, a pack of life-size tigers writhe in midair, bristling with scores of arrows. They should be dead, with all those wounds. Yet they still live–or appear to. There is no more perfect emblem of China, or so might agree Ma Jian, on the basis of his new novel, Beijing Coma, in which the country is portrayed as “a vast graveyard” with “a gruesome history.”
Detailing just how gruesome is part of Ma’s project, and it takes nearly 600 pages to record a mere slice of the brutality and carnage wreaked by a government bent on controlling every aspect of its people’s lives, from the way they profess their love (only recently could anything more direct than “You’re nice” be uttered out loud) to their reproductive fulfillment. Then, whenever a soldier shot a civilian, “the victim’s family was made to pay for the bullet.”
Ma closely surveys those costs from a distance. His books banned in China since 1987, he lived in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong for two years and has lived in London since 1997. His first book of fiction was Stick Out Your Tongue, set in a modern Tibet of lost illusion. Published in 1987, it is a brief chain of telegraphically arresting visions of life in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region; traveling there had moved the author to an epiphany on the subject of just “how dehumanising extreme hardship can be.” Indeed, the experience of hunger is given exhaustive treatment. You get the sense of a people all but reduced to crawling on their knees because they lack the strength to walk. In one story, a young man sets out from the modernity of school to visit his nomadic family and dies along the way. He returns nonetheless, but now it is only half of him: “When he left Saga last month and boarded the bus to Mayoumu, he was so torn between the town and the grasslands that he felt as though his body were being ripped in two.” These are tales where the supernatural, the strange, is made natural. Ma writes a literature of return in which symbols of a nation left to hover between the past and the unsettled present become palpable.
The book’s title refers to a manifestation of madness, specifically that of a girl whose mother was her grandmother, ill-used by men to the point of insanity. She would stick out her tongue in an apt greeting to a world that would permit such things. It also echoes the manner in which medicine–in this case, medicine all too strong–is administered. Thus, on its publication the book was banned as “a vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.” In other words, it peered behind the placards of official doublespeak to lay bare some rough realities.
In The Noodle Maker, published in Hong Kong in 1991 and in this country in 2005, Ma attacked the oppressions of the Communist regime through the rear-guard action of humor, slicing with a sharp knife into the depraved inanity of Big Brother. A frustrated writer and a professional blood donor meet to discuss matters, and the writer’s would-be creations take form and spawn their own fictions. Ma has a point to make about a world where the usual medicines provide no cure: “she consulted the works of Heidegger, hoping to use his philosophy to untangle the mess in her mind, but after wading through a couple of times she discovered that Heidegger was even more confused than she was.” This is why the author places himself, as the writer who has created the character of a writer who creates the character of a magazine editor who is himself a failed writer, in a hall of mirrors where one does not really know which writer is which. At least we’re off the hook there, since, as he says of yet another scribbling character, “She didn’t realise that writing is a meaningless act of vanity.”