Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe

Well, I’ve finally read my first Peirene Press book – and it’s a corker! I was lucky enough to win a book of my choice when Peirene had a Twitter giveaway, and it was almost impossible to choose. But I finally went for “Sea of Ink” because it sounded fascinating – and indeed it was.

sea of ink

Peirene Press are a publishing house who specialise in short works of translated fiction, and they’re beautifully produced; all have individual cover designs that nevertheless have a house style and create a homogenous whole. They’re printed on quality paper with French flaps, and are intended to be read in one sitting if possible – which is a great idea really, because we’d sit and watch a film in one go, wouldn’t we? Each year’s releases is themed, and I can really see how collecting these books would be a wonderful thing to do….

However, back to “Sea of Ink”! I was attracted to it for a number of reasons; it’s a novel about the life of a Chinese painter, Bada Shanren, written by a German author, so that’s intriguing to start with. And the book is illustrated with some of Bada Shanren’s work. Finally, the few pages I previewed read rather beautifully, so I was hooked.

Bada Shanren was a product of the Chinese royal family, born in 1626; however, when the Ming Dynasty collapsed after the conquest of the Manchus, he took on a new identity, entered a monastery and studied painting. Chinese painting is not painting as we see it; instead, simple brushstrokes and monochrome inks capture simple but elegant images containing the essence of nature. Bada Shanren became a master of the art, but his identity was discovered and he only escape by feigning madness.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

We follow Bada Shanren through a varied life, with marriages and children, changes of name and location, but with the constant of his art. As he ages, he contemplates the world and its temptations and trivialities, carrying with him at all times some special ink given to him back in the monastery. When it is time to use this ink he has a simple artistic aim left in life, while he still has the strength to work…

A fine rain had set in. Bada wandered through the pine forest beneath the monastery and breathed in the fragrance, for the damp trees were letting off an aroma. Amidst the silence he told himself, “You must know when the world acquired you and when the time has come to leave it. My life is fading away like the magnificence of the cherry blossom in the rain, and I feel only sadness at the emptiness which remains. I have filled it with my signs, but have I thereby proved my existence?”

“Sea of Ink” was a beautiful, contemplative read which reminded me of nothing less that Hesse’s “Siddhartha” in its portrait of a man of the east in search of truth. However, there was an extra element here in that the book reproduces several of Bada Shanren’s works, which are preceded by passages where Weihe describes the process of their composition. This adds wonderful insight into the life of the painter and the methods he used and brings the whole book alive.


I was also reminded, by the clarity and simplicity of the prose, of works I’ve read such as “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and “The Book of Tea”; Weihe really seems to have captured the beauty of Oriental writing quite brilliantly and brought alive the life and work of Bada Shanren. So my first Peirene Press book is a real winner, and I’m now trying to resist the temptation to go off and explore the rest of their catalogue…. 🙂