The day before I met Ma Jian, at a Sichuanese restaurant in London's Soho, he had flown in from his native China. The day after, I flew in the other direction, to Shanghai. He speaks no English, I speak no Chinese and we spent barely 24 hours in the same city. Yet, in that time, we crammed in two-and-a-half hours of riveting conversation over a chilli-drenched lunch.
Ma, 55, is best known as the author of Beijing Coma, an extraordinary novel published this year, which is set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre. His books, harshly critical of China's one-party state, are banned at home, obliging him to ply his trade abroad. The title of his latest work, already acclaimed as the novel of the 1989 massacre, refers literally to the physical state of the protagonist, a former student protester trapped in a coma after being shot by soldiers storming the square. Metaphorically, the comatose state is Ma's judgment on the Chinese people who - dulled by fear and lulled by growing prosperity - have stopped questioning authority and wiped the past clean.
Ma, who has lived in London since 1999, arrives at Bar Shu in Frith Street with his partner Flora Drew, the mother of his two children. A fluent Chinese speaker, she has translated several of his books and has agreed to interpret. The restaurant is decorated with red lanterns and empty birdcages - a lilting Chinese soundtrack provides the birdsong - and the wooden tables are set with modern white dishes offset by black lacquered chopsticks.