'Sea of Ink' is the first English translation of 'Meer der Tusche' which was published in Switzerland in 2005 and won the Prix des Auditeurs de la Radio Suisse Romande in the same year, and is about Bada Shanren, a 17th century Chinese painter who starts life as a member of the aristocracy, but goes on to take many guises (and different names!) whilst forging his own path through the creative and contemporary world. He becomes, to name a few, a monk, a madman, a father and a husband, so this book gives you a pretty thorough account of life at the time, although most of it is fiction as you can imagine that 17th century Chinese non-governmental sources are few and far between... Structurally, it is 51 short chapters arranged as a 118 page novella, the idea being across the Peirene range that you can read these little gems in an evening, or the same amount of time you might use to watch a film.
Rather than film time, it took me a bath and a train journey to delve through to the end, and a very calming and enjoyable read it was too. I don't know if it's because Bada Shanren is a fairly serene figure or because the Chinese landscape is so poetically evoked, but I found this book to be a profound quiet spot in two quite busy days. The language is lovely, the tale is simply told and I loved that Weihe imagined the process of Bada Shanren painting his most famous pictures (I've included some below) and included the pictures also, so you can read the process of Bada Shanren painting his most famous pictures whilst tracing the lines with your eyes on the opposite page. The novella-length feature that is common to the whole Peirene series is inspired - what a nice feeling to zip quietly through a lovely book in two hours, a small interlude in the midst of my mammoth, if wildly satisfying 'A Suitable Boy' Readathon which is going to take me at least a month more yet :)
My only slight criticism might be to do with the translation - some of the sentences feel too short to let the mood really flow - but in large part it's excellent; the poetic eloquence of the story was conveyed very well by the translator, which after all is the most important thing.
As a side thing, it was a real novelty for me to pick up a book and not to have my attention grabbed immediately by the fellow author boosters and recommendations that normally wave from the cover and chatter through the first few pages, as if buying/borrowing a book wasn't even to imply interest and that we might still need convincing. I found it very refreshing to see a book and feel that the publishers had enough confidence in it to leave this off and say, yes, this book is good enough and brave enough to stand on its own. The cover is gorgeous too - taking the sum of its parts, it's a really lovely thing.
This book is actually one of the thematically linked trio of books that Peirene are publishing in 2012 - the others are 'The Murder of Halland' by Pia Juul and 'The Brothers' by Asko Sahlberg, comprising the 'Small Epics' series; 2011's series was 'Male Dilemma' and 2010's 'Female Voice'. All are European novels in translation, and most (if not all) were launched with a variety of literary salons and elegant evenings with the author attached, so Peirene seems to provide a very sophisticated and total experience. I'm excited. I actually own one of the books from the 'Female Voice' series although I have yet to read it, but I think I'll be bumping it up the series so I get to it soon.
I thoroughly recommend this lovely, poetic book and actually attended a Peirene event last night where I met the author and saw someone respond to the text via the medium of clarinet (!), so check back tomorrow for my write-up of that!
Title: Sea of Ink
Author: Richard Weihe
Publisher: Peirene Press
Date: September 2012
Format: Paperback, 118 pages, and it was a happily received ARC.