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.
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.
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.
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!
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.