The cover of John Spurling's novel features an exquisite painting by Wang Meng, an artist in 14th-century China, called Writing Books Under The Pine Trees.
He lived during the last days of the Yuan dynasty, founded by Khublai Khan, and became known as one of the Four Masters. The painting is full of subtle but telling details, much like Spurling's fictional exploration of Wang's life in the tumultuous final years of Mongol rule. Through Wang's eyes the lives of artists, poets, peasants, minor bureaucrats and revolutionary bandits come alive.
The story opens with the 78-year-old Wang being imprisoned because he once went to see the former Prime Minister's art collection. Under the new regime this means he is under suspicion of disloyalty and may be kept on remand for months or even years. While he waits for a trial, Wang decides to look back on his life as a disinterested observer might, writing down his story so that others may learn from his experiences. It makes the hardships of his imprisonment easier to bear. This book-within-a-book device works well, Wang explaining his current circumstances in the first person and his colourful past in the third person.
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Wang Meng is a minor bureaucrat and descendant of a former Emperor but his real love is art and he is a talented painter. He sometimes escapes to his country house at Yellow Crane Mountain and spends his time painting. His lack of ambition infuriates his wife who would rather that he ingratiated himself with their Mongol rulers. Instead Wang is more interested in examining the 10,000 things that make up the world. He travels around the country, observing the increasing chaos as the descendants of Khublai Khan lose control of the lands he conquered.
Spurling's descriptions of the ancient Chinese landscape are intoxicating, from the hidden valleys to the waterfalls and small villages. His writing style is lyrical but never tips over into purple prose. As an artist, Wang studies his surroundings in great detail and the result is a beautiful evocation of a very particular time and place. Through Wang's eyes the reader is immersed in 14th-century China, the splendour of life for the rich and powerful and the brutality of life for the many poor peasants.
Wang himself is an interesting character, far more than a literary device. In Spurling's tale he is a deeply moral man who questions himself and his motives, and often finds that he is wanting but only when measured against his own high standards. He is a gentle man who would rather spend his time contemplating rocks and waterfalls but his innate intelligence leads him to become an advisor to the White Tigress, a beautiful young woman who commands a group of bandits.
Wang himself would rather paint the landscape than kill for it but in such violent times it is hard for anyone to remain neutral. By writing most of his story in the third person, Spurling has enough elbow room to place Wang in the wider context of the turbulent times, a history that deserves to be better known.
Spurling also excels in detailing the intricacies of classic Chinese art, how it is made and how it is viewed.
Wang's reaction to the work of one of his fellow Four Masters is as instructive as an art lecture and so comprehensive that the paintings are almost tangible.
The custom of never showing a large painting all at once but in carefully choreographed stages is a delicious detail, as is Wang's own way with a paintbrush and ink stone.
The major pitfall of fictionalising history is overwhelming the imagined story with the factual research. While it is obvious that Spurling's research runs far and deep, he is always in control of his material, the many facts sprinkled lightly and completely subsumed into the fiction.
It is a delicate balancing act but one that Spurling has mastered with apparent ease, conjuring the wonderful Wang Meng from fragments of history.
This is a remarkable novel that deserves to be read slowly and savoured as one would a stunning landscape or a beautiful painting.