Whenever I see that quote about Peirene Press from the TLS “two hour books to be devoured in one single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film” I feel Peirene should see injustice. Why must it be done in one single sitting. Obviously its the marketing of these books by Peirene, but the connotations of these books to DVD’s and cinema is detrimental. Once again, it has been proven that Peirene’s title have a more enduring legacy than a DVD with their number 9 title Sea of Ink, by Richard Weihe, exquisitely translated from the German by Jamie Bullock as these contemporary titles continue to emerge in the market under the Peirene Banner.
The tastes continue to be as eclectic as ever, because this time, fact and fiction are blended in this historical novella of the life of the iconic Chinese artist – Bada Shanren. Weihe, does not expect the reader to be an expert on the history of Chinese art as he guides and narrates this understated tale of artistic endeavour and prestige. In fact, it could be argued the more naive the better and undoubtedly gives Weihe some breathing room to fictionalise the story, the antithesis of Laurent Binet’s HHhH if you will. Comparatively little is known about Bada Shanren, apart from his legacy of ink pieces, some of which are interpersed throughout the short, rarely more than a page long chapters/sections.
It opens in 1644, with Zhu Da, not Bada Shanren. Zhu Da, or Bada Shanren’s life depending which way you look at it, is succession of name changes and pseudonyms, and Zhu Da is the Prince of Niyang, 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. He was born in privilege, little exposed as Weihe puts it ‘a sheltered childhood in the palace, surrounded by splendour and wealth’. There is no mercurial, prodigal talent hinted at Weihe, which is good to see, avoiding cliche success story, instead Zhu Da must achieve his legacy through hard work and dedication, unbound from his political heritage. His father is the talent, a much revered painter at the time, but it is his grandfather who exposes him to art,
“Zhu’s grandfather made him a scroll painting of a dragon for his bedroom. The young Zhu, thought this was the largest creature that ever existed….In his dreams the fire-spitting monster broke free from the paper and little Zhu had to leap into the water to save himself”.
It is this moment, early on, that seems to instigate Zhu on his artistic pathway to Bada Shanren, as the metaphor of the dragon is purposefully overbearing and scuppered by Zhu. The dragon, such a formidable image in chinese culture is effectively abandoned, seemingly down to its potential political connotations. As Zhu leaps into the water in to his dream to save himself, you see the fish become the most recurring allusion for the rest of the novella. Indeed it is the ‘biggest creature that ever lived’ and the fact that the mythological creature could live in Zhu’s world speaks volumes. Psychological dragon-slaying. The constrains of his political upbringing are enunciated when ‘the sun extinguished on the Ming dynasty’ later on in the story, causing the prince to flee to the mountains.
The contemporaneity of the story, is thanks to Weihe’s message of how Zhu Da becomes Bada Shanren – how do you become the artist? Before the artistry, Bada Shanren immerses himself in Buddhism, then alias Chanqi and on mastering it, Xeuge (the straight line linearity of the novell avoids any confusion with the name changes). This allows for Confucian philosophy to be entwined in the story, most memorable for the descriptions of the ink paintings after Bada Shanren learns the way of the artist and the Buddha as if they’re linked in some transcendent way. At first there is the slightly humorous metaphor of the young Bada Shanren painting with an overly large brush, physically overwhelming him, and being dominated by the implement. Of course it becomes him dominating the tool…
“When you have my brushes in your hand then remember my words” the master said. “The water that flows beneath the mountains and the sea will teach you all that you need to know to understand about the world. It has the rare quality of being able to fit all beings without dispute. Knowing the functions of the mountain without knowing the functions of the water is like the man who sinks into the sea without knowing its beaches or stands the beach without knowing the immense spaces which fill the sea”.
Still, Bada Shanren must continue to fight other external intrusions in his recluse, or ‘vagabond’ as Weihe puts it. Bada Shanren is subject to commercialism in the form of ‘Nobles and rich men everywhere began to venerate the creations of the brush’ and hitting notes of the rampant monetary exploitation of artists today in any kind of form and the need to make a living. The political backdrop also lingers on the periphery, threatening to affect Bada Shanren’s equilibrium as the new rulers are greatly interested in classical Chinese culture; ‘the new rulers wished to write the history of their empire and for this they needed experts on previous eras’ and offer Bada Shanren ‘ to colloborate on the great history project’. It sounds very Orwellian and only now as we see artists and novellist from China breaking the political dogma and censorship to leak through into the western market. Of course there are the high profile cases like Ai Wei Wei, but one has to question how many incidents like these do not get coverage, it is a timely reminder by Weihe, of the past he is creating is still a big issue today (and its also vital to remember that Weihe is not Chinese as well).
Weihe reconstructs the life of Bada Shanren avoiding cliche and his realist prose carries the lucidity of the story. It is linear in realist fashion, with no room for flashbacks or retrospect, just the calm eddying flow like the rivers and mountains he keeps alluding to, such is the way of his understated and soothing pen. Interestinly, as you look at the copies of Bada Shanren’s art, and the use of only black ink on white paper (which is not just down to the printing, and would have been a very odd situation had it been colourful) there is a cohesive effect of the art, the words, and the prose creating an image as the relative minimalism of the paintings, the light and shade mimicking the tonal productions of Bada Shanren’s art like that defined in the following passage,
“When he placed his right hand on the white, unpainted part of the paper he noticed that the stem and the lower part of the flower traced the outline of his thumb and wrist exactly. With ink he had painted a flower, and with the area he had left blank he had depicted part of his hand”
It is what Weihe’s prose, Bada Shanren’s art, implicitly and explicitly say. He manages to keep himself detached both emotionally and politically as the contemporary aspects of it are visceral, which could be down to Weihe not being chinese, or just the historical era it is set in. Its an Orwellian back drop essentially, but devoid of the irony and menace in Orwell’s great works. In Weihe’s afterword he speaks of how the pictures aroused his curiosity – their basic ambiguity and how little is known about Bada Shanren. Sea of Ink is about Zhu Da, Bada Shanren, his art and endeavour and the subjugation experienced by artists. If it is no good, at least let it be yours and at the very least it will be original which is spoken by Bada Shanren, one way or another in the story. This could also be said of Peirene Press that have reproduced a book that truly is art. Whilst being slightly averse to the historical novel here, this book proves that there are some parts of history that need to be rewritten.
Sea of Ink, 118 pp. by Richard Weihe is out now and published by Peirene Press. Thank you to Trip Fiction for providing this review copy, and a smaller version of this review features on their website.