Hard Like Water review

Source: NYT (6/15/21)
Cheat on Your Partner or Change the World: In This Novel, It’s All the Same
By Jennifer Wilson

Credit…Xinmei Liu

By Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas

Is there really anything that distinguishes an extramarital affair from a revolution? Both entail a disdain for staid traditions, an ability to convincingly lie about your whereabouts, regular attendance of clandestine meetings and the full knowledge that someone (maybe even an entire class of people) is going to get hurt. In “Hard Like Water,” the latest novel by the controversial Chinese author and satirist Yan Lianke to be translated into English, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution is the backdrop for an illicit romance between two committed party members, Gao Aijun and Xia Hongmei. At the time, adultery was considered a symptom of lingering bourgeois tendencies, but Aijun and Hongmei reject the notion that they cannot be faithful to the revolution while being unfaithful to their spouses. After all, what is a Marxist dialectic if not an acknowledgment of irreconcilable differences?

“Hard Like Water” begins in 1967 in the wake of the Revolution. As the country’s leaders begin forcibly replacing the “Four Olds” (customs, habits, culture and thinking), Gao Aijun becomes infected with this revolutionary fervor — and personal political ambition — leaving the army in order to build a new proletarian culture in his hometown. At just 25, he is a decorated soldier whose “dossier became so full of these certificates that there wasn’t room left for even a fart.” Aijun’s father-in-law is a party secretary who has promised him a village cadre upon his return home. He is, in other words, on the cusp of a political career “as bright as a revolutionary’s heart.”

Such potential makes his story ripe for a good ruining. The novel, a parody, sets itself up as a kind of Maoist “Anna Karenina” when Aijun arrives home and spots a beautiful young woman at the train station, portending a conclusion just as disastrous and physically gruesome as Tolstoy’s. Seeing her, Aijun recalls the chairman’s superficially feminist dictum that “women hold up half the sky,” but tweaks its original meaning, as he will frequently do throughout the novel when faced with counterrevolutionary impulses. “It must have been precisely in order to wait for me,” he tells himself, “that she had been sitting there holding up half the sky all day.” Where her husband, he learns, is a local schoolteacher who wears black-rimmed glasses and “looked as though he were about to be swept away by the revolution,” Hongmei is a hard-liner, especially when it allows her to enjoy life. After claiming to have shaken hands with Mao at a rally, she refuses to cook, feed the pigs or bring her father-in-law food at the temple, lest she have to wash the hand that touched the chairman.

Her reputation furnishes Aijun with the perfect pickup line: “Hey, I want to establish a revolutionary organization. Would you like to join?” What ensues is a kind of rom-com montage where the pair plot to seize power, purge the local party of counterrevolutionary members and have sex in secret tunnels. “We were not only a pair of great revolutionaries,” Yan writes, “but also a pair of abject adulterers.” When Hongmei asks, “Aren’t you afraid that word of our activities might get out?” it is not obvious whether she is referring to their zeal for Communist purity or their impure, “decadent” extracurriculars. This conflation of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary “activity” is precisely the novel’s conceit, playing with the Taoist tradition of paradox. Making reference to Lao Tzu’s sixth-century B.C. Dao De Jing, the title can also be read as a tongue-in-cheek crack about Aijun’s unreliable carnality.

This intertextuality proved a challenge for the translator Carlos Rojas, a professor at Duke who also translated Yan’s “The Four Books,” a novel about intellectuals at a re-education camp during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Much like that book, “Hard Like Water” is dizzyingly allusive. Yan peppers the text with phrases cribbed from Mao-era songs and slogans, weaving them seamlessly into the text without attribution — like the repeated refrain “Revolution is not a dinner party,” a quote from Mao’s Little Red Book. “Chinese readers would instantly recognize many of these allusions,” Rojas writes in a note to the text, but he’s decided to italicize them so English-language readers will know they are encountering Communist rhetoric.

Sexually charged political satire is nothing new to Yan. One of his best-known novels, “Serve the People” (2005), is about a faithful adherent of the Cultural Revolution who is seduced by the wife of his division commander. With that novel, Yan ran afoul of censors, and his next novel, “Dream of Ding Village,” which satirized the Chinese government’s handling of the AIDS crisis, was banned after selling out on its first printing.

Yan writes in a quasi-absurdist style he calls “mythorealism,” wherein the link between cause and effect is disrupted so the characters’ actions at times seem to come out of nowhere — and maybe such is life. The result for many of his works, including “Hard Like Water,” is a kind of ecstatic, jumpy prose. It is never really clear what draws Aijun and Hongmei to each other. Whereas in “Serve the People,” an affair between people on different ends of the social hierarchy felt transgressive and alluring, the relationship between Aijun and Hongmei feels like the union of two horny teenagers. That might be appealing when you are in the thick of such a thing in real life, but on the page it falls a bit flat. Perhaps it explains how this novel slipped past the censor.

At its core, “Hard Like Water” seeks to make a mockery of claims to political purity. As Hongmei and Aijun arouse each other with propaganda slogans and revolutionary citations, the novel pokes fun at how easily an ideology can be contorted to satisfy individual desires. It also suggests that this might not be such a bad thing. Aijun may condemn “revisionists,” but when it comes to true love, he himself is one, and it might be his only good quality.

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