Was it my imagination, or did our letterbox sigh with pleasure as it admitted the latest publication from Peirene Press, Richard Weihe's Sea of Ink? I am a fervent admirer not only of what Peirene is doing - i.e. publishing, at a modest rate, exquisitely-produced European novellas in their first English translations - but also of how they are doing it. The beguiling design template, of an image specific to each title overlaid with a screen of creamy yellow, through 'holes' in which the original image is glimpsed in tantalising fragments, is complemented in each case by cover flaps, paper that is a joy to touch and a clean, elegant font with appropriate typesetting. Moreover, the books are being sold and marketed in imaginative and highly effective ways which are a model for the survival and success of small publishers. One can subscribe to books in advance of publication and buy them at various
pop-up bookstores, as well as acquiring them online or through bookshops, and the founder of the press, (whose sparkling enthusiasm for literature and passion for her publishing mission I can attest to in person), also hosts literary salons which have grown steadily in stature and popularity.
Sea of Ink, which belongs to the charmingly-oxymoronic Small Epic series, is an historical novel and poetic meditation by a German writer concerning the life of a seventeenth-century Chinese artist and calligrapher. This layering of time, identity and culture is an echo of the hero's life, which, shaped by the upheavals of that period in Chinese history, finds him, as a member of a violently-deposed ruling clan, fleeing his home, losing his family and entering a long period of monastic exile, during which he is tutored in the spiritual mysteries of applying ink to paper and adopts a succession of different names as his self-perception develops. The effect is somewhat like a Chinese Russian doll, with identity concealed within identity.
Weihe writes in a simple, fable-like style which is almost faux-naif, and particularly excels in his descriptions of the protagonist's dreams and his drawings, a selection of which are beautifully reproduced in the book. The whole package comprises a rich visual and literary journey into Chinese history, culture and thought, and the essence of creativity, from a European perspective, and is well worth your financial and temporal investment. I am left wondering, however, if the numbers of chapters and drawings (51 and 11, one short of the quantities of weeks and months in a year) are themselves significant.
The deeply relaxing effect of Sea of Ink