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