In a double whammy of literary proportions, we read Richard Weihe’s Sea of Ink and attended an event all about the book. So, in two articles, by two Annexians, we will discuss Peirene Press’s latest publication, starting with a review by Annexe editor Nick Murray.
Sea of Ink – Richard Weihe
I sometimes struggle with reviews of translated works. Am I reviewing the original story or the skill of the translator? It’s true that both of these come into question when reading a work such as Sea of Ink. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene founder, said herself that Sea of Ink and Meer de Tusche [the original German title] are completely different texts.
Sea of Ink opens in the heart of war. The Manchu invasion of China is in progress. This opening provides a backdrop to the story, one that reappears frequently as the political struggles of the country overlap with the protagonist. Zhu Da, a Ming noble, finds himself as the last of his line after his family is murdered and in his flight he turns to the monastery and traversing various iterations of himself becomes the painter and poet, Bada Shanren. This much of the story is fact. Bada Shanren was an actual 17th century artist with a large body of work still intact today. It is this work that inspired Richard Weihe to write Sea of Ink. The story, largely fictional, creates and recounts the journey from childhood to death of the painter, hung on a framework of the few remaining facts of his life and the paintings.
The book is peppered with reproductions of these ink works and you can see why they moved Weihe to write the novella. He displays a great skill in dissecting the gestural nuances of each painting and relating them to a period of Bada Shanren’s life. At each painting, he precedes it by giving a detailed step-by-step of the creative process down to each brush stroke. While this is a beautiful descriptive vehicle allowing us to get inside the calmly considered hand of the painter, after the third or fourth time it only serves more as a speed bump for the narrative.
Weihe’s poetic prose style works as a way of drawing a history out of these paintings, which he has succeeded in doing very well, to the point where I think the narrative supersedes the paintings. They become illustrations. Beautiful illustrations, rich with history, but illustrations nonetheless. It is to Weihe’s merit. Readers should come to this novella not to experience more of the paintings they love, but to be immersed in a well crafted tale of 17th century China.
In a discussion with Meike Ziervogel and Richard Weihe at the Sea of Ink event in Senate House, I was told that I could not read the book, and other Peirene books, in the same way that I read English literature. European literature does not benefit from an Anglo-Saxon reading. After considering this for some time I concluded that it is less a continental divide and more of an issue with this grey area between biography, narrative non-fiction and fiction. By straddling the fence between these areas, Weihe had to create a story that was engaging, but also stuck to the few historical clues he had. This meant that the structure of the book and the various narrative expectations we have as a reader are altered and reformed. This is no bad thing. Beyond being an interesting tale, Sea of Ink also serves as a refresher for your reading mind. I’d like to read a few more of Peirene’s books to see if this theory holds true or if I have to rethink my Anglo-Saxon literary ways.
Peirene Press is a publishing house that focuses of releasing European literature in English translation. Their unique and unconventional style has won them awards and citywide praise from the literary in-the-know.
Richard Weihe studied drama and philosophy in Zürich and Oxford. He has received critical acclaim for his poetic biographies of artists.
Sea of Ink is the third title in Peirene’s Small Epic series.