The premise of this book is delightful: a novella in 51 short chapters, describing the life of famous 17th-century Chinese painter Bada Shanren, partly through his paintings themselves, which are reproduced in the book. The writing in places was quite beautiful, but as a novella it didn’t really work for me. I’ll attempt to explain why.
Part of it, I think, is the difficulty of describing art in words. I had a similar problem with the descriptions of jazz in the Booker-shortlisted Half Blood Blues last year – I wrote then, “No matter how good the descriptions are, it’s really hard to convey the beauty of music through the written word. There are lots of passages in this book about Hiero blowing a high C or Chip playing crisp and clean on his drums, but I still couldn’t hear the music.
It was exactly the same for me here. I read something like the following:
He covered the small piece of paper he had laid out with a few rapidly executed vertical and horizontal strokes. In the right half of the picture he interrupted a downwards sweep by lifting the brush and, from the centre of the paper, painted a broad line which he guided along a gentle incline to the right-hand edge of the paper, then made a straight brushstroke from the end of this down to the bottom with a single fluid movement of the hand…
Nothing wrong with the writing, but I couldn’t really see the painting – until I turned the page and was presented with an image of the painting itself, which looked completely different from the half-formed image in my head, and which at a glance communicated far more than the preceding page of description (I only reproduced a small portion of it here). I know that the point was to get behind the images, to add another dimension to them by imagining what the painter was feeling as he made those brush-strokes. I applaud the aim, but for me it didn’t really work.
I should say, though, that it seemed to work for others – I appear to be out on a limb here. Haven’t seen too many reviews yet, but the ones I have seen are mostly positive. Check out, for example, Little Words or My Book Year. And Die Tageszeitung said “You feel that you are watching the painter at work.” This was clearly a major aim of the book, but I didn’t feel that at all, and so the descriptions of brushstrokes became quite repetitive.
Another problem I had was that 51 chapters in 100 pages means, of course, that the chapters are incredibly short – in some cases just half a page. Yet each chapter does deal with a separate episode in the painter’s full and varied life. The result is that the narrative feels episodic, not a story but a series of separate anecdotes, none developed very fully.
For example, the blurb for the book states “In 1626, Bada Shanren is born into the Chinese royal family. When the old Ming Dynasty crumbles, he becomes an artist, committed to capturing the essence of nature with a single brushstroke. Then the rulers of the new Qing Dynasty discover his identity and Bada must feign madness to escape.” It sounds intriguing, but the feigning madness and escaping all take place in a single chapter of less than two pages. They find him, he feigns madness, he escapes. Then it’s on to the next thing. I think the book would have worked better if the author had described a few key events from the painter’s life, rather than trying to cover everything and doing so only thinly. I hate to say something like that, because I know this is the book the author wanted to write, but that’s my take on it.
Having said all that, there were things I liked about Sea of Ink. There were some beautiful passages, like the painter as a boy learning from his father, who never speaks a word and yet manages to communicate. I loved the image of the boy stepping into a bowl of ink and walking along a long scroll, his footprints getting lighter with each step, and his father then writing on the scroll: “A small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da. A path comes into existence by being walked on.”
There’s a real poignancy to the young painter’s abrupt loss of his wife and son as the Ming dynasty crumbles and he is forced into hiding, and I loved how these memories were handled later, as the painter, now a monk, starts to become detached from them but can never truly relinquish them. The writing is simple, spare and sometimes beautiful, a perfect accompaniment to the paintings in which so much is communicated with only a few strokes of black ink.
I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s read the book and has a different take on it. Or of course, agreement is always good! Or if you haven’t read it, does it sound like the sort of thing you’d like? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few images (which you can click to enlarge) from the artist, Bada Shanren: