Book notes: Richard Weihe and Robert Jackson Bennett

Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink (2003/12)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Peirene Press’s Year of the Small Epic has so far brought us a grand domestic drama and a study of bereavement. The series takes a lighter turn in its final instalment, with Swiss writer Richard Weihe’s fictionalised biography of the Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He is born Zhu Da, a scion of the Ming dynasty; but political change and his father’s death lead him to join a monastery and devote his life to art, going through many names before settling on Bada Shanren, ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’.

Sea of Ink has eleven illustrations of Bada’s beautiful paintings, and Weihe includes descriptions of how the artist worked, his brush strokes and hand movements. This has the striking effect of creating a detailed impression which remains just that – an impression. Even though we can see the final paintings, there’s room for our subjective interpretation of Weihe’s words. The novella itself works in a similar way, its short chapters acting like brush strokes to create a portrait of Bada’s life which is necessarily a fiction, a construct.

The ultimate story told in Sea of Ink seems to me one of a man finding peace in life through finding (or accepting) his place – finding the world in the marks of ink and brush. The tone of the writing is quiet and reflective; I’d say this is ideal reading for an autumn night.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (2012)

Over the last few years, Robert Jackson Bennett has been crafting his own distinctive visions of the American fantastic’s iconic tropes. For his third novel, he turns his attention to the magical travelling show. We meet George Carole, a sixteen-year-old vaudeville pianist as he leaves his current job to visit the troupe of Hieronomo Silenius, whom George believes to be his father. Silenius’s reputation precedes him, but no one ever remembers the details of his show. When George watches a performance, he finds out why: the Silenius troupe plays an extraordinary song that make those who hear it forget what they’ve seen – but it doesn’t work on George.

Falling in with the troupe, George discovers that this music is pat of the ‘First Song’, the one that brought Creation into being; peforming it is the only thing that holds back the ‘wolves’ who would seek to devour reality. Silenius’s band go from place to place in search of fragments of the First Song, which only those of the Silenius blood-line can carry (the song didn’t work on George because he is of that line). So begins a journey into the world’s mythic spaces, with reality itself at stake.

Bennett achieves a nice balance between the personal and cosmic focus. All the members of Silenius’s troupe are pretending to be something they’re not, and the theme of escape runs through the novel – escaping the past, and escaping the inevitable. The ending makes use of a risky technique (I appreciate this is vague, but want to avoid a spoiler), but Bennett pulls it off. His body of work continues to intrigue, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

1 Comment

  1. I liked the additions in Sea of Ink of how the art was produced, though must admit after a couple of rounds I started contemplating skipping the paragraphs. But then it worked for a lot of people so I suppose it’s just one of those “things” you have to get. I’d agree with your conclusion.

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