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.
Carlos Rojas’s exceptional translation makes English feel new again. Yan’s linguistic daring, and the novel’s relentless stream of provocative images and observations, create a sensuous and riveting world ... Yan’s knowledge and appropriation of revolutionary language—Mao Zedong’s poems, slogans and most famous directives, plus a heady array of literary texts, songs and propaganda from the Chinese and Soviet revolutions—is formidable. Large sections of Aijun and Hongmei’s speech are borrowed words. But Hard Like Water is neither mockery nor satire; it is a sharp, desperately moving analysis of the logic of ideology. Its mashup of literary and political texts poses the uncomfortable and timely question: how did each of us arrive at our certainties? ... The mass tragedy at the heart of this novel is not satirised or exaggerated; it is all too real ... a work that makes contradiction the heart of its syntax: every page confronts us with what is permitted and what is desired, what is myth and what is true, how one person’s liberation is another’s disappearance.
Arguably the most important of Yan’s earlier novels ... Mao Zedong’s poems, lines from model operas, Marxist dictums, and Party songs and slogans abound in this satire, leading various Chinese critics to call the book (not always approvingly) a 'dictionary' and 'museum' of revolutionary language ... In Hard Like Water, the formulaic language of the Cultural Revolution insinuates itself into the minds and mouths of the characters ... Such schizophrenic dialogue is rent by the dictates of what Geremie Barmé calls New China Newspeak. How to render in English this stilted, allusive language? Translator Carlos Rojas’s prudent solution is to sometimes italicize the stock phrases, as seen above. As he explains in a postface, it would be impractical to gloss the intertextuality, and the Chinese original did not. Two decades after the initial publication, one wonders if the resonance of Yan’s layered language might thin out even among Chinese readers, new generations of whom would also find the style arcane. In this sense, the novel will indeed serve as a dictionary or museum preserving the Maoist era’s carnival of cant ... But Hard Like Water is realistic primarily in capturing the logorrhea and hypocrisy of the times ... Scar literature’s question of moral responsibility persists in Yan’s novel. He does not absolve Gao in mass hysteria but presents him as a scheming careerist with selfish motives behind a public facade, a little megalomaniac who, far from wishing to topple the existing hierarchy, strives rather to ascend that hierarchy by talking the talk of the megalomaniac-in-chief. In Yan’s imaginative world, each of us bears at least partial burden for our words, even and especially when we are parroting those from on high. ... Crucially, however, Hard Like Water’s hero is an antihero unrepentant to the end.
... 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.