Cheating on your partner or changing the world: in this novel, it’s the same

By Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas

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

“Hard Like Water” began in 1967 at the dawn of the Revolution. As the country’s rulers begin to forcibly replace the “Four Olds” (customs, habits, culture and thought), Gao Aijun is infected with this revolutionary fervor – and personal political ambition – leaving the military in order to build a new culture. proletarian in her hometown. At just 25 years old, he is a decorated soldier whose “file became so full of these certificates that there was not even room for a fart”. Aijun’s father-in-law is a party secretary who promised him a managerial position in the village upon his return home. He is, in other words, on the cusp of a political career “as brilliant as the heart of a revolutionary”.

Such potential makes its story ripe for good ruin. The novel, a parody, comes across as a sort of Maoist “Anna Karenina” when Aijun arrives home and spots a beautiful young woman at the train station, foreshadowing a conclusion just as disastrous and physically gruesome as Tolstoy’s. Seeing her, Aijun remembers the president’s superficially feminist saying that “women hold half the sky,” but alters the original meaning, as he will frequently do throughout the novel in the face of counterrevolutionary impulses. “It must have been precisely to wait for me,” he said to himself, “that she had been sitting there holding half the sky all day.” Where her husband, he learns, is a local schoolteacher who wears black-rimmed glasses and “looked like he was about to be swept away by the revolution,” Hongmei is a tough line, especially when it comes down to it. allows him to enjoy life. After claiming to shake hands with Mao at a rally, she refuses to cook, feed the pigs, or bring food to her stepfather at the temple, for fear that she would have to wash the hand that touched the president.

His reputation provides Aijun with the perfect pickup line: “Hey, I want to establish a revolutionary organization. Would you like to join? ” A sort of rom-com montage ensues where the couple plots 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 the news of our activities will be leaked?” it is not clear that she is referring to their zeal for Communist purity or their impure and “decadent” extracurricular activities. This amalgamation of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary “activity” is precisely the vanity of the novel, playing with the Taoist tradition of paradox. Referring to Lao-tse’s “Tao Te Ching” from the 6th century BC.

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