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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

From a critical condition, a critical look at China

In Ma Jian's novel "Beijing Coma," a Chinese dissident recalls his life through flashbacks as he lies comatose after being shot in the head in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Beijing Coma"

by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 586 pp., $27.50

Chinese dissident Ma Jian earned his chops with "Red Dust: A Path Through China" (2002). He hit the road, journeyed to the vast wastes of China's western desert, down the southern coast and on to Tibet. Next came "The Noodle Maker" (2006), a richly satirical novel filled with Western products and habits juxtaposed with ancient Chinese cultural artifacts, laced with bleakly comical Communist marionettes. "Stick Out Your Tongue," a book of short stories set in Tibet, followed.

Now a London-based author, Ma Jian left China in 1987, the same year the Chinese government banned his work. But "Beijing Coma" is nothing less than a comprehensive story of China in the 20th century. It often reads like the script for a documentary, but the wraparound story is intimate and believable.

Dai Wei is a Ph.D. student in Beijing who helps organize the demonstrations leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. In the midst of the massacre, he is shot in the head. The novel takes place as he lies comatose, unable to move but able to hear and remember.

Mental pictures and wafting aromas evoke for him the events leading up to the demonstration. Starting with his childhood and his first fumbling attempts at romance, the story becomes more focused when he and his student friends debate ways and means, slogans and strategies, watch for spies, grab sex where they can; all in the service of achieving their end: democratic reform.

His mother, a combination harridan, sycophant and survivor, cares for him — sometimes dragging him to the countryside to be "cured" by some herbal genius. Stilted dialogue, convoluted slogans and inadvertent funny moments, perhaps the result of cultural difference, pop up now and then: "I glanced up and caught sight of her armpits. In the bright sunlight, they looked dark and mysterious and seemed still to be sheltering secrets from my past." There is an interminable, obsessive recounting of smells of all kinds: the erotic smelly toes of a lover, the filthy socks of a dorm mate, bodies long unwashed, rancid food.

There is a charming subtext that runs throughout: Dai Wei's favorite book as a child was "The Book of Mountains and Seas," a folk tale filled with beauty and sorcery, magic and solace. It comes up again and again, set next to the horrors of Mao's regime and the Tiananmen Square incident itself. In it, Ma Jian shows us another China; one of bright, shimmering, endless possibility.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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