China bans all mention of June 4, the day of a deadly 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, but memories remain—including those of exiled novelist Ma Jian and of the protagonist of his new novel, "Beijing Coma." The story follows Dai Wei, who grew up the son of an accused "rightist" in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and who falls in with ideological firebrands during his university days. Heady from reading Western books and ideas, Dai Wei and his fellow students press the government for democratic reforms in a series of demonstrations, first in 1987 and then two years later. As the second protest is strained by a hunger strike and power struggles among the youth, the Army opens fire and Dai Wei takes a bullet to the brain. For the ensuing decade, Dai Wei languishes as a "vegetable" in his mother's home, moving back and forth in his trapped mind between memory and the present, and hearing visitors relate how the government has punished his surviving friends—and how those friends move on to find prosperity abroad or to participate in a rapidly changing China.
The book has some missteps, as when the author lingers on minute details of student squabbles. But "Beijing Coma's" descriptions of life under Mao and the Gang of Four, and of the events leading up to the June 4 massacre, are powerfully engrossing passages of narrative, and a moving testament to a history that the Party powers would prefer to forget.