This is a book I’ve been sitting on for some time. I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed Yan Lianke’s previous books – those that I’ve read (Serve the People!, The Explosion Chronicles) have been smart, readable and memorable satires on the Revolutionary period. I loved the cover art and design for Hard Like Water (堅硬如水) but having made the purchase, it was strangely uninviting. Perhaps I’m a little weary of the genre, who knows. After all, as long as I’ve been going to bookshops, translated Chinese fiction has been dominated by this sort of Maoist period fictional memoir (Maomoir?), often inspired by the author’s own experience – it seems to be the western market’s view of what ‘serious’ Chinese fiction is.
Yan, being born in 1958 in rural western Henan to illiterate farmers, had a rural upbringing during Mao’s rule, before joining the Army, becoming a propagandist, getting a degree in literature and moving to Beijing. Rural Henan looms large in his writing as the setting for most of his books, and specifically a fictional range of mountains, the Balou mountains. Yan has been both censored and celebrated in China, and most of his novels have been translated into English (usually by Carlos Rojas at Duke) since Serve the People! caused a stir in 2005. Hard As Water sees Rojas dipping into Yan’s back catalogue – it was first published in China in 2001 (Taiwan 2009) before the works that really made Yan’s name.
And there is something dated – at least to 2001 – in Hard Like Water. I don’t think I’ve read a male author write so much and so explicitly about sex for two decades – male authors’ hesitancy to write about sex after a late 20th century obsession with it, at least in the West, is well documented. Hard Like Water is about a young revolutionary, Gao Aijun, whose enthusiasm and ambition for revolution is wholly and messily intertwined with his libido. He returns to his home town of Chenggang in the Balou Mountains after leaving the Army and starts an affair with a woman called Xia Hongmei. Of what follows, a great proportion is Aijun and Hongmei ‘doing that thing’, as Yan invariably calls it.
Gazing down at her pert breast, at the nipple at its center, and at the piece of yellow earth stuck to the nipple, I said, “Albania’s heroic populace, which has become Europe’s great socialist torch, the Soviet revisionist leaders, the group of traitorous strikebreakers, and Yugoslavia’s Tito faction – compared with you, they are all just mounds of earth, while you are a cloud-piercing mountain.”
I found it a little tiresome, but it’s clearly supposed to be. Yan quite deliberately uses very overblown and frankly icky metaphors, especially for Hongmei’s body. The sex is juxtaposed with revolutionary slogans and language, or compared with revolutionary operas, and Yan co-opts revolutionary allusions and references throughout. One chapter is devoted to Aijun and Hongmei holding a competition to write poems and essays to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, like the alcoholic poetry competitions in Dream of the Red Chamber.
It can certainly be amusingly horrifying in its exploration of desire and permissiveness. I felt Yan was going for something akin to a revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde. But the film I kept returning to in my mind was Ai No Corrida, where the sex is so continuous, so graphic, so obsessive, and so clearly making a political statement, that its message pales.
Their revolutionary and sexual zeal leads to disaster all around. Aijun’s wife commits suicide; he decapitates Hongmei’s husband with a shovel in the underground tunnel Aijun has built for their liaisons; they hypocritically target and destroy other suspected adulterers as ‘class struggle’. In a Fight Club like finale, a ten-page sex scene (which they force Hongmei’s neo-Confucian father-in-law to watch) soundtracked by revolutionary songs ends with an explosion destroying the local temple. The couple are sentenced to death (with the slogan ‘Viciously criticise Gao Aijun and Xia Hongmei’s anti-revolutionary and adulterous murder, and stomp on their perpetually stained corpses’), which allows Aijun, narrating from beyond the grave, to treat himself as a revolutionary martyr and genius.
The translation is excellent and finds the off-hand humour and mocking pomposity where it needs to, and conveys the provocative sensuality in Yan’s language. I’m pleased to have read more Yan and – as a name increasingly cited as a potential Nobel Prize winner – it is excellent to have more of Yan’s back catalogue available in English. It’s a worthwhile read, and certainly memorable.