Beijing Coma

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Ma Jian, Chatto and Windus, £17.99

The Olympic flame supposedly signifies democracy and freedom. Ironic, then, that the Chinese Olympic flame had to be "protected" by a bunch of thugs against demonstrators demanding those very things.

Irony is at the centre of Ma Jian's novel, which is simultaneously beautiful and full of brutality: a blistering critique of a repressive society, in which the hardliners now want "a more open economy, but not the demands for political freedoms that it inspired".

Ma Jian has said that he was driven to write Beijing Coma in an attempt to reclaim history from a totalitarian government whose role is to erase it. The book - focusing on the 1989 mass demonstrations for political and cultural freedoms - is a scathing attack on the Chinese Communist Party. The Communist Party surrounds its history with a wall of silence where any mention of the massacre of unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square is forbidden and where censorship is all-pervasive (including blocking such words as "freedom" on the internet). In China, Ma Jian's books are banned. The media cannot interview him or even mention his name.

In 1989 Ma Jian was living in semi-exile in Hong Kong. He saw the democracy movement as "some great spark of hope" and returned to Beijing to take part in it. He described a mood where people's "masks" fell away, where people were so excited by the atmosphere that even the pickpockets joined in the strikes. It is clear that writing this book has been very important for Ma Jian. In his words, "This book is very thick. It took me ten years to write."

The narrator and main protagonist is Dai Wei, a student activist who spends ten years in a coma after he was shot in the head during the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

He becomes a prisoner of his body - his experience mirrors the tyranny and the decadence of the system, as his physical state degenerates. But while his body rots, his mind races with energy, with emotions, longings, and, above all, memories. His body echoes Tiananmen, "a trap, a square, with no escape routes", but his mind remains "a warm space with a beating heart, trapped in the middle of a cold city".

His very existence is seen as a threat to the ruling class. He can't speak or move, but the government still keeps him under constant surveillance. On anniversaries of the pro-democracy demonstrations he and his mother are shunted out of their flat and hidden away, in case he becomes a focus for dissent.

As Dai Wei wanders through the interior landscape of his blood vessels and organs, he paints a picture of China from the Cultural Revolution until the present. His father, labelled a "rightist" and imprisoned in a labour camp, is rehabilitated - a broken man with horrific memories of his experiences. His mother, initially obsessed with becoming a loyal party member, looks for salvation to the Falun Gong movement (seen as "another form of madness" by Ma Jian). She becomes another victim of the system, but is also transformed into an outspoken critic: "China is one huge prison. Whether we're in a jail or in our homes, every one of us is a prisoner."

Having crippled Dai Wei, the government won't allow the hospitals to treat him. His mother resorts to any means necessary to fund his medication - from selling his urine to selling one of his kidneys. But Dai Wei remains a "knowing presence" with vivid and articulate memories. In fact his coma has given him more freedom of thought than anyone else around him. He reflects, "I'm probably the only citizen still alive who hasn't signed a statement supporting the government crackdown."

Through Dai Wei's memories we see the frenetic, clumsy attempts to organise the early pro-democracy demonstrations. They make the banners, but forget the poles. They are frightened, brave and have no past experience to shape their ideas.

It is Ma Jian's belief that on 4 June 1989 the tanks "crushed the soul of a generation" and destroyed any sort of "ethical judgment" among people who are forced to develop schizophrenic personalities in order to survive. This novel denounces the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party, but is equally hostile to the corruptibility of the new materialism and "breakneck economic development" which "warps people's personalities and their morality".

Ma Jian actually welcomes China's hosting of the Olympics, hoping that China will be more subject to international scrutiny and that "the army of refugees" (people displaced from their homes to make way for the development of Olympic sites) may themselves become drawn into opposing the system.

Above all, this novel radiates a compassion for ordinary human beings and their striving for justice and freedom. As one of Dai Wei's friends despairs at the existence of corrupt, evil people, Dai Wei retorts, "They aren't evil, they're just the products of an evil system - corruption breeds corruption." His characters change and grow - during a demonstration he observes that "when people become part of a group they find a courage they never knew they possessed before."

We have to hope, with Ma Jian, that a real flame, and not just the bogus, gas-fired flame of the Olympic torch, can be rekindled in China. If so, this book will have played its part.