From a writer, dubbed "China's most controversial novelist" by the New Yorker, a biting story of ambition and betrayal, following two young communist revolutionaries whose forbidden love sets them apart from their traditionally-minded village, as the Cultural Revolution sweeps the nation.
Yan transplants this subgenre into the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) to showcase “the erotics of revolutionary activism” as exemplified by an impossible love story ... If not love, then certainly lust-at-first-sight ensues. Despite marriages (and children) with others, their all-consuming affair translates to impassioned revolutionary fervor that leads to suicide, madness, unimagined power, and horrific downfall. In between, the lovers’ boldness galvanizes their radical (albeit, not quite clear) demands for change. Yan’s signature biting wit creates another indelible work of bittersweet humor and sociopolitical insight.
... dizzyingly allusive. Yan peppers the text with phrases cribbed from Mao-era songs and slogans, weaving them seamlessly into the text without attribution ... 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 ... 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.
Like some Bonnie and Clyde of Maoist fanaticism, Aijun and Hongmei set about smashing every bond of family and friendship in pursuit of their blood-red new dawn. Yet self-awareness, even a guilty conscience, never quite deserts this monstrous couple ... That inner conflict gives this book its pulse and point ... it reads as a vivid, even lurid, portrait of the vandalistic savagery and hypocrisy of the post-1966 Cultural Revolution itself, packed with quotations from the militant songs, slogans, poems and operas of the time — bombastic jargon that Yan’s satire undercuts. In 2021, the novel also serves as witness to a period when Chinese writers could grapple with Mao-era atrocities with a frankness that, two decades later, might be riskier than ever ... Yan captures the sheer erotic thrill of revolutionary entitlement ... Well-served by Carlos Rojas’s agile and richly textured translation, Yan makes his anti-hero a pleasure-loving sensualist. Aijun exults like some classical poet in landscapes, sunsets, seasons and the fragrant flower garden of his lover’s body. His testimony glows with intense, synaesthetic snatches of perception. Smells becomes sounds; colours turn into scents ... Aijun’s voice, lyrically impassioned yet utterly deluded, makes the misdeeds of these back-country Robespierres if not sympathetic, then comprehensible.