Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe and a Peirene Press Experience at Senate House

By now I’m sure you’ve all heard of Peirene Press – they are a small publisher bringing European literature to a British audience in translation. They publish their beautiful little books (all are intentionally short) in series of threes, each with a theme. Sea of Ink by Swiss author Richard Weihe is the third book in the ‘Small Epic’ series, which also includes The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, which I reviewed here.

Peirene Press 2012 edition

Sea of Ink tells the imagined life story of a real figure – the painter Bada Shanren, one of the most influential and highly revered Chinese painters of all time. The book comprises 51 short chapters that are intended as snapshots of the man’s life – from before his birth to his death. Bada Shanren was born as the Prince Zhu Da of the Ming dynasty. When it fell, he went into hiding and became an artist. He changed his name regularly to coordinate with the changes and shifts he went through as an artist.

This snapshot method of telling the story meant that, for me, the book almost read more like a poem than a novel. Lots of short sentences and very little dialogue, but with beautiful imagery and plenty of Chinese wisdom and philosophy. In this sense it is not a conventional novel. To me it felt more like an essay or one of a series of life snapshots.

One of Bada Shanren’s many images of fish

The only problem I had with Sea of Ink was the lack of emotional engagement with the central character. Again like a poem, the writing holds you at a certain distance from the subject, as well as the passage of time. This means that the reader feels a certain amount of detachment and never really connects with Bada Shanren as a person. Photographs of his paintings are included in the book, and these help to bring to life the stages of his journey – many of them serve to express his feelings where words cannot.

This issue of emotional depth and sympathy for the main character was raised in the Q&A section of the Peirene Press Experience with Richard Weihe at Senate House library on Wednesday night. The evening was a mixture of readings from the book (by actor Adam Venus), music from composer Fabian Kuenzli, and a talk from author Weihe. The readings were vivid and lyrical, and the music, played on the clarinet, was composed in response to the novel. There was also an early 20th century jazz composition that suited the text well. Weihe spoke with passion about seeing one of Bada Shanren’s paintings in a museum in Zurich and being fascinated by the process and intentions of it, and of course the man who painted it. This lead him to research what little information there is on the 17th century artist, and to write Sea of Ink. Peirene have uploaded footage of the evening’s performances to their YouTube channel, which can be seen here.

Richard Weihe

As Marketing Manager Maddy Pickard said to me on the night, it is lovely to have literary events that are a little different – that contain something beyond a reading. The music added another dimension to the text and it was amazing to hear Weihe talk about his book with such passion, almost as if he were delivering a lecture to students rather than an informal talk to a room full of readers.

Peirene Press consistently produce excellent literature and I highly recommend reading any of their books. Sea of Ink is beautiful and sad, and I think it will really appeal to anyone with an interest in art, history, philosophy, and poetry. So, most of you then!

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Sea of Ink was published in English in September 2012 by Peirene Press, and is available at peirenepress.com/shop. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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5 thoughts on “Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe and a Peirene Press Experience at Senate House”

  1. Just finished this, and had a similar reaction to you. I’d be interested to hear what Weihe said about emotional depth and connection to the character in his Q&A – watched the Youtube video but it didn’t mention it.

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    1. Weihe responded that he had never heard that said about the book before, which I find amazing. He and Meike (the publisher, who is German) agreed that sympathy with the main character is not really an issue in European literature, but Meike said it seems to be an Anglo-Saxon way of reading a text. That is, automatically looking for a sympathy with the central character(s). Very interesting to think about the different ways different cultures and countries would view the same work.

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  2. […] A week before Richard’s arrival we still only had three bookings for the Peirene Experience evening – and this despite our best efforts to publicise the event on twitter, on facebook and in our newsletter. I decided to pull the plug, but Maddy wanted to persevere. ‘It will be a brilliant event. Just like the Peirene Experience we organized for The Brothers. We had music and actors. Everyone left enthralled.’ She spent the next few days sending out another round of invitations. Amazingly she filled the room and the evening was a huge success with glowing online feedback. And here is another review. […]

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