Book review: The Thousand Things, by John Spurling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm

The Ten Thousand Things
by John Spurling
4.5 stars

Susan Ramsay

Just as a master painter of yore would define a landscape in sweeping strokes of his brush and draw the eye to some intricate detail, so John Spurling writes the captivating story of Yuan dynasty artist Wang Meng.

The renowned painter wrote his own memoirs, before he starved himself to death in prison, and Spurling's historical novel is a rare treasure.

The story is told through Wang's eyes in a time of turmoil for the dynasty. We meet the narrator in prison and from there he shares sections of his life. Colourful threads of journeys, meetings, friendships and loss slowly coalesce to become a literary work of art.

Wang Meng is of noble birth and may have gone far in government service, if only he was ambitious enough. But, much to his wife's exasperation, apparently all he wants to do is stare at mountains and paint them. Despite his desperate attempts not to become involved in the confusing lead up to rebellion, fate conspires to draw him into the violence.

While this story is a compelling tale, it is anything but a weekend page-turner. There is plenty of action, some of it quite violent - rebellions, bandits and beheadings, some of it breathtakingly tense as Wang strives to be a "virtuous" man according to his own belief system. He is no hero with a plan. Rather he dithers, hesitates, meanders and questions his way through life.

But the story's delicate details never paint him as weak. He is more philosophical, and strives to remain detached from circumstances through his art. He seems only to notice the disintegrating circumstances around him as they affect him and his friends, but for a good part of the story he accepts the fate of those obviously suffering from starvation and disease around him. Wang, it seems, abhors change.

Three warlords arise to throw off the Mongol invaders. One of them is a monk Wang met several years earlier. The other two are pirates and thugs.

As these leaders defeat the foreigners, Wang's friends are optimistic. Wang himself is not sure that sacrificing peace for upheaval and freedom is a good idea.

As the writer observes, we don't want too many "great" leaders; we can't afford them.

He is proved right too, as the leaders under whose ambit he falls become increasingly vicious. But Wang knew this would happen all along.

"Emperors are not found by committees," he says, "however well qualified and well intentioned. These gentlemen see strategic manoeuvres in the distance and in the foreground the palace and magistrate's court, the streets and canals, the shops and markets, the restaurants, houses and temples - all the administrative details necessary to make the Empire just and workable - but they don't see the wall in between."

"The wall?"

"The city wall that protects them and also makes them powerless. The wall patrolled by soldiers. The man who drives out the Mongols will have to do it by force. If he has the military power to do it, then he will have the military power to found the next dynasty. He will be the Emperor. That has always been our history."

Like one of Wang's paintings, this story is a highly crafted masterpiece that cannot be enjoyed in one sitting.

Each chapter is a story from Wang's life, introducing us to the world as seen though his eyes. Wang and all of his human failings emerge much as one of his paintings must have.

Even a reader who starts out with no interest in China or Chinese artists will be sure to return to this story over the years, as its truths remain timeless.