cover image The Ten Thousand Things

The Ten Thousand Things

John Spurling. Overlook, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4683-0832-7

Combining the delicacy of an old Chinese landscape painting with the brutality of Chinese history, Spurling’s novel follows the wanderings of real-life painter/sometime bureaucrat Wang Meng during the last years of Mongol rule through the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Talk about the best and worst of times! Before peace and prosperity, 14th-century China witnessed Kublai Khan’s domain deteriorating into lawlessness. When the novel opens, Wang doesn’t know that foreign domination will soon end, or that his paintings will inspire future generations. He only knows that he feels compelled to retreat into the mountains to study nature and attempt to capture it with paper and ink. Descended from a great family long in service to their Mongol overlords, Wang struggles to maintain a fragile balance between respect and self-expression, sensitivity to subtleties of honor and practical exigency. He befriends, among others, three artists with whom he will change Chinese art, and a 16-year-old Buddhist novice who will change Chinese history. He assists a fiery bandit queen, as well as the poet who memorializes her as a passive milkmaid. Wrongfully imprisoned during his old age by the regime he helped establish, Wang, as Spurling imagines him, records his life story both in first person and in third, in keeping with his observant, yet personal, painting style. The narrative resounds with the vivid detail and the ever-changing tides of war and politics, art and nature. (Apr.)