16 June 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the ninth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

At the RTW party at BEA, there were a number of booksellers and reviewers raving about this title. In fact, the fifteen free copies that FSG sent to give away were gone before the second bottle of wine was opened. (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but this really was one of the hottest RTW titles.)

With all the attention being paid to China—the Olympics, human rights abuses, etc.—it seems like there’s been a genuine upswing in interest in reading titles by Chinese writers. Especially dissident Chinese writers such as Ma Jian, whose work was banned by the government following the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue.

Politics and foreign cultures aside for the moment, the plot of this book sounds pretty intriguing:

The novel explores how fear and ignorance generate a lethal amnesia that undercuts individual freedoms and social bonds. The story weaves together a documentary chronicle of the students in [Tiananmen] square with a nightmarish tour through the consciousness of a protester, Dai Wei, who is shot in the head during the crackdown. Throughout the novel he is in a comatose state, trying to make sense of what happened as his mother struggles to keep him alive. (from The World)

A very interesting interview with Ma Jian and his translator, Flora Drew, can be found on the World Books section of PRI’s “The World” website (a section that is becoming more and more impressive everyday).

Ma Jian’s has a few provocative comments on the Olympics:

I believe that Western leaders should not play into the ruling party’s hands and collaborate in this big propaganda show. If they do, the Olympics will be a true farce because the party will have made Beijing into the cleanest prison in the world. All the undesirables, the mentally unstable people, all the dissident writers will have been detained and arrested before the event, so the atmosphere of openness will just be a charade, a piece of theater in which Western leaders will play their part.

But also has some interesting things to say about his novel:

The World: Your novel “Beijing Coma,” which centers on the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square, depicts the rebellion against the government as farcical rather than heroic. By showing how much went wrong with the demonstration, the book appears to undercut the struggle for freedom in China.

Ma Jian: For me, the events in Tiananmen Square are not romantic so I don’t wish to romanticize them. I see them as a tragedy, a tragedy because these young students had no idea of their own history, they had no memory, so when they stood up for what they understood to democracy, human rights and freedom they didn’t know what these terms meant or how to effectively bring them about in reality. And because they had grown up amid political indoctrinization they had no other reference points, no other models to follow, so when they achieved a certain level of power they turned into a miniature Communist party, with all the infighting and bickering that maneuvering for power brings.

I think it’s great that Bill Marx interviews both the author and translator, giving the translator a chance to talk about some of the difficulties/joys of translation. (It was at the Goethe Institut event last week that someone related a Peter Constantine quote that “A translator is someone who is always running into problems.”)

For instance, I find Flora Drew’s comment on the “most difficult challenge of translating Beijing Coma into English” rather illuminating:

The Chinese language doesn’t have tenses, so the past, present, and future intermingle because the language makes it easy to jump about fluidly in time. But capturing that expansive experience of time becomes tricky in the English language, where you also have to maintain a solid backbone of chronology. My goal was to retain Ma Jian’s sense of ambiguity and timelessness while also making the story understandable to an English-speaking reader.


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