Excerpt from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Beijing Coma

A Novel

By Ma Jian

Beijing Coma
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  • Hardcover: May 2008,
    592 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2009,
    624 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Print Excerpt


‘He’s just pretending to be dead . . .’ my mother mumbles to someone. ‘I can’t eat this pak choi. It’s full of sand.’

It’s me she’s talking about. I hear a noise close to my ear. It’s somebody’s colon rumbling.

Where’s my mouth? My face? I can see a yellow blur before my eyes, but can’t smell anything yet. I hear a baby crying somewhere in the distance and occasionally a thermos flask being filled with hot water.

The yellow light splinters. Perhaps a bird just flew across the sky. I sense that I’m waking from a long sleep. Everything sounds new and unfamiliar.

What happened to me? I see Tian Yi and me hand in hand, running for our lives. Is that a memory? Did it really happen? Tanks roll towards us. There are fires burning everywhere, and the sound of screaming . . .And what about now? Did I pass out when the tanks rolled towards me? Is this still the same day?

When my father was lying in hospital waiting to die, the stench of dirty sheets and rotten orange peel was sometimes strong enough to mask the pervasive smell of rusty metal beds. When the evening sky blocked up the window, the filthy curtains merged into the golden sunlight and the room became slightly more transparent, and enabled me at least to sense that my father was still alive . . . On that last afternoon, I didn’t dare look at him. I turned instead to the window, and stared at the red slogan raise the glorious red flag of Marxism and struggle boldly onwards hanging on the roof of the hospital building behind, and at the small strip of sky above it . . .

During those last days of his life, my father talked about the three years he spent as a music student in America. He mentioned a girl from California whom he’d met when he was there. She was called Flora, which means flower in Latin. He said that when she played the violin, she would look down at the floor and he could gaze at her long eyelashes. She’d promised to visit him in Beijing after she left college. But by the time she graduated, China had become a communist country, and no foreigners were allowed inside.

I remember the black, rotten molar at the side of his mouth. While he spoke to us in hospital, he’d stroke his cotton sheet and the urinary catheter inserted into his abdomen underneath.

‘Technically speaking, he’s a vegetable,’ says a nurse to my right. ‘But at least the IV fluid is still entering his vein. That’s a good sign.’ She seems to be speaking through a face mask and tearing a piece of muslin. The noises vibrate through me, and for a moment I gain a vague sense of the size and weight of my body.

If I’m a vegetable, I must have been lying here unconscious for sometime. So, am I waking up now?

My father comes into view again. His face is so blurred, it looks as though I’m seeing it through a wire mesh. My father was also attached to an intravenous drip when he breathed his last breath. His left eyeball reflected like a windowpane the roof of the hospital building behind, a slant of sky and a few branches of a tree. If I were to die now, my closed eyes wouldn’t reflect a thing. Perhaps I only have a few minutes left to live, and this is just a momentary recovery of consciousness before death.

‘Huh! I’m probably wasting my time here. He’s never going to wakeup.’ My mother’s voice sounds both near and far away. It floats through the air. Maybe this is how noises sounded to my father just before he died.

In those last few moments of his life, the oxygen mask on his face and the plastic tube inserted into his nose looked superfluous. Had the nurses not been regularly removing the phlegm from his throat, or pouring milk into his stomach through a rubber feeding tube, he would have died on that metal bed weeks before. Just as he was about to pass away, I sensed his eyes focus on me. I was tugging my brother’s shirt. The cake crumbs in his hands scattered onto my father’s sheet. He was trying to climb onto my father’s bed. The key hanging from his neck clunked against the metal bed frame. I yanked the strap of his leather satchel with such force that it snapped in half.

Excerpted from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Copyright © 2008 by Ma Jian. Translation copyright © 2008 by Flora Drew. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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