Richard Weihe's Meer der Tusche (Sea of Ink, Peirene version translated by Jamie Bulloch) is a summary of the life of famous 17th-century Chinese artist and calligrapher, Bada Shanren. He is born into the royal line as Zhu Da, a prince destined for a life of regal duties and pleasant distractions; that is, until the ruling dynasty is overthrown by the Manchus, forcing him to flee for the mountains.
Seeking refuge in a monastery, he learns about art and life, and decides to devote his days to religion and painting. After initially being taught by the head of the temple he sought refuge at, Bada Shanren moves on, becoming the spiritual leader of his own temple, and a renowned artist in his own right. Later in life, he is compelled to undergo exams for the ruling dynasty, and is admitted to the rank of 'Sea of Ink', the highest honour for an artist under the regime. However, this is not enough for a man like Bada Shanren - he wants nothing less than to create the perfect painting...
Sea of Ink runs to little more than 100 pages, divided into 50 short chapters, and it follows the artist throughout his life, from birth to death (it definitely deserves the designation of small epic). The start of the book concentrates on the historical events of the period, in particular the change of regime, a bloody, violent seizing of power. Later though, historical events take a back seat, and it is the artist's gradual development which becomes the focus of the story.
Of course, the book is all about the art, and in addition to the story, Weihe includes ten beautiful ink drawings, examples of the artist's work, which are woven into the fabric of the novella. In fact, they are an integral part of the story, the foundation upon which the writer builds his (partially-invented) story. From Zhu Da's early days watching his father painting, through to his years as an acolyte, the artist (and the reader) learns more and more about the great skill involved in creating pictures using just one colour:
"Wenn du deinen Pinsel in die Tusche tauchst, dann tauchst du ihn in deine Seele. Und wenn du den Pinsel lenkst, lenkt ihn dein Geist. Ohne Tiefe und Sättigung fehlt deiner Tusche die Seele; ohne Lenkung und Lebendigkeit fehlt deinem Pinsel der Geist. Das eine empfängt vom anderen. Der Strich empfängt von der Tusche, die Tusche empfängt vom Handgelenk, und das Handgelenk von deinem lenkenden Geist. Das heißt die Kraft der Tusche und des Pinsels meistern."The monk stresses the importance of preparation, practice and patience. In effect, the whole book (and Bada Shanren's whole life) is leading up to his attempt to paint something unpaintable - water.
p.35 (Elster Verlag, 2011)
"When you dip your brush into the ink, you dip it into your soul. And when you guide the brush, it is guided by your spirit. Without depth and saturation, your ink will lack soul; without guidance and exuberance, your brush will lack spirit. The one receives from the other. The brush stroke receives from the ink, the ink receives from the wrist, and the wrist from your guiding spirit. This is what it means to master the power of the ink and your brush."***
While Sea of Ink is a story of the artist's life, it is also a tale of the paintings themselves. Weihe describes how inspiration arrived for each of the pictures, and how Bada Shanren actually created them. Weihe's art historian background shines through as he announces each brush stroke, carefully guiding the reader through the process from picking up the brush to the final signature seal. The pictures really are quite impressive - I particularly like the two spiders ;)
A perfect little novella, then? Not quite... One aspect of the novel which grated a little was the description of the actual painting. Perhaps for someone who didn't get placed carefully in a corner with a box of crayons during school art classes, Weihe's painstaking descriptions of the painting process may have been more interesting. For me, without an artistic bone in my body, it did get a little old. Around the fifth or sixth time he picked up his brush and began carefully preparing the ink, my eyes did start to glaze over a little, and I tended to skip over the actual description of the brush strokes. I suspect that this says a lot more about me than about Sea of Ink...
Still, it is an excellent novella, and a great introduction to an interesting character. If you're at all interested in art, you'll get a lot out of this - including, perhaps, the secret to the perfect painting:
"Enthält denn der erste Strich nicht schon die ganze Zeichnung? Er muss lange vorbedacht werden, vielleicht ein Leben lang, um ihn dann, im richtigen Moment, in einer einzigen flüssigen Geste zu Papier zu bringen, ohne einer Korrektur mehr bedürftig und fähig zu sein." (p.107)It's all about that first stroke - or should that be sentence ;)
"And doesn't the first stroke contain the whole picture? It must be considered at length, perhaps throughout your whole life, so that then, in the right moment, you can commit it to paper in a single, fluid motion, with neither the need nor possibility of improvement."***
*** The English translations are, as usual, my sorry efforts, and not those of the real translator :)
That's it then - I'm all up to date. I've read all ten Peirene books published to date, most of them twice. Or have I...
...you see, of the ten I've read, only four have been actual Peirene books. The other six have all been the original versions, books recommended by the nymph but not actually a part of the real Peirene stable. In fact you could call them, Peirene choices, not Peirene books.
Is there a difference? Well, that's a story for another day ;)