Picador Books

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Picador keeps publishing one literary gem after another. The paperback house, a subsidiary of Farrar Straus Giroux, consistently issues titles that catch my eye and interest. At the top of my "must-read" list is BUT BEAUTIFUL, a reissue of a Geoff Dyer book about some of the 50s musicians who revolutionized the jazz world--Lester Young, Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk. I was living in New York at the time and attending clubs like Birdland and The Half Note where Monk and Mingus were shattering the boundaries of jazz. As for tenorman Lester Young, his star was beginning to fade then as he slowly succumbed to alcohol, but I still want to read what Dyer has to say about his singular achievements in the world of jazz.

Another book I'm looking forward to is TO SIBERIA, by the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson. Having reviewed (enthusiastically) his previous novel, Out Stealing Horses, I can't wait to catch up with his latest, which (according to Picador) is "the haunting story of a brother and sister's tragic separation in WW II-era Denmark." The LA Times called the book "a brilliant re-creation of Hansel and Gretel...a darkly beautiful story, an evocation of the grim equanimity of the Danish people, the fierce and constant weather and the childish idea that we could possibly save each other from the world."

I have managed to work my way through Ma Jian's 720-page novel, BEIJING COMA (translated by Flora Drew). Long and often maddening as it is (the book is packed with scientific terminology and pedantic discussions about the nature of time), BEIJING COMA is still one of the finest novels I've ever read, a powerful and harrowing portrait of modern China.

Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China in 1953 and for a time worked as a photographer for a state-run magazine. At the age of thirty, fed up with government restrictions, he quit his job and bummed around China and Tibet for three years, carrying a notebook, a camera, and a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. His first book, Red Dust, told the truth about his travels--Tibet's poverty and degradation, the two sides of modern China: political repression coexisting with cautious economic freedom. Red Dust was banned by the Red commisars, but won fame for Jian in the West (the author went into exile in London).

Ma Jian returned to China in 1989 to join the student protests in Tiananmen Square and was there when the government massacre took place. The crushing of youthful hope and optimism serves as the fictional impetus for BEIJING COMA. Its hero is Dai Wei, a student who was shot in the neck in Tiananmen Square and has been in a coma ever since. Cared for by his embittered and impoverished mother (a victim of Mao's Cultural Revolution), Dai Wei lies blind, paralyzed and mute, but not defeated. Still a rebel, still fighting back as best he can, he uses his thoughts and memory to oppose the forces that crushed him.

Remembering the excitement and brief glory of the Tiananmen Square protest keeps him alive. He remembers his fellow-protestors, his friends and lovers (there are many bawdy, Rabelasian passages), the children who visited the square and celebrated Children's Day there.

At the same time, the comatose Dai Wei is an obvious symbol of the tragedy of a country ruled by a ruthless dictatorship that wants to eliminate part of its own history. (The massacre cannot even be mentioned by name in the Chinese media.) As Ma Jian said in an interview, "As a writer I must get back this part of missing history. This is my main motivation for writing the novel. The current Chinese economic development has put everyone into a coma; I mean, they have all lost the value or conception of morality. They have turned into a vegetative state and can only think about making money."

Picador, ppbk, $18. Picador has also published two other books by Ma Jian: The Noodle Maker and Stick Out Your Tongue, a collection of stories about his devastating adventures in blighted Tibet.