Some say novellas are sometimes the easiest to read. They are generally one hundred and twenty pages long, sometimes even shorter than that. Yet when I picked up the novella, “Sea of Ink” by Richard Weihe and sat down with it, I didn’t realize that it would be difficult for me to get through it, only because I did not want it to end and also because at some places it was a complex read.
“Sea of Ink” is a novella of 50 short chapters and 10 sketches. It is about the life of Bada Shanren, one of the most influential Chinese painters of all time. Richard Weihe combines fact and fiction seamlessly in this novella, only to enchant and mesmerize readers. That was the highlight of this novella for me.
Bada Shanren is but obviously an artist and like most artists, he needs his space and time to create. What Richard Weihe does through the book is give the artist that. He almost creates a world through Shanren’s 10 selected ink drawings and weaves the story through art. He merges the two art forms and keeps words minimal.
The plot of the book is about Shanren, a 17th Century Chinese painter, who starts his life as a member of aristocracy, but takes on many guises and names, just so he can keep his art alive in the world. Shanren was a part of the time when the Ming Dynasty crumbles and that is when he goes into hiding so he can be alive and safe. He took on on several roles – of a father, a husband, a madman, and a monk, just so he could paint, and only because the hunger of the artist was unrelenting. The most beautiful part about his artwork is that he wants to capture nature with a single brushstroke. This is beautifully seen in his works that form a part of the book. What will astound you as you go further into the book is that all of this had actually happened (or at least most of it).
Now, let me tell you about the writing. I loved it because it was clear and not beating around the bush. Maybe that is why novellas can actually bring out the most of what a writer has to say. The novella speaks almost in poetic prose – describing the life of the painter – the way he feels, what he does and how can alienation feel, with the taking of so many guises and names. At some level, you need not be an artist to relate to Shanren’s life and perspective. That is the beauty of Weihe’s writing.
There were times in the book, when I had to go back to the sketches and then correlate them with the prose. It seemed a bit cumbersome however that is the idea of the writing (if it is). Besides this, for me the book has been a delight. The translation by Jamie Bulloch from German has been superbly done – so much so that it didn’t feel like a translated work. November could not have started any better than it did with this small gem of a book.