Review: The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Thingstenthousand

by John Spurling

Duckworth Publishers

My interest was piqued when, on a two week internship at Duckworth and Overlook Press, I heard the Managing Director call this book ‘exquisite’. He went on to say that whilst in hospital recovering from injury, this was the only book (the ONLY book!) that he read from cover to cover.

With that sort of testimonial from one of the Publishing Greats, how could I not begin to fixate on it? ‘Exquisite’? I’ve read a lot of classics, of course, books so well known in general that reading them is less discovering a new story than it is learning the lines that connect the dots, but I’ve never really thought of them as exquisite; language differences and the way the pacing pulls you along rarely allows you to savour the way Authors really craft their novels. In my normal reading I’m a fan of fast-moving, pacy books that I can lose myself in and (usually) suddenly find that I’ve finished them within a matter of hours.

I am, perhaps, a product of my times. Without getting too political or philosophical about it the fact is that I’ve grown up alongside ever faster technologies. The idea of waiting for a chicken breast to cook in the oven is difficult for me, and internet clothes shopping is for me, a lazy pastime in which I can zone out and flick through dresses on asos.co.uk. (This is a habit that I am trying to break, as I am now not in quite so secure a financial situation as I once was!)

My point is, that although this is the book I was most excited about reading in my collection, I was also a bit hesitant. My expectations were high, and I’d enjoyed Tan Twang Eng’s THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS, which can be compared to this book if only based on their both being set in East Asia during times of hardship and turmoil, so I should enjoy this one too, right?

Except that I can’t recall much of that book, shortlisted for the Man Booker as it was, I’m not even sure if I finished it. I can’t find any indication of a bookmark, but I don’t remember the end, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell you where I finished reading, or indeed much beyond some vague beginnings of the story.

I suppose I needn’t have worried, as these two books are indeed very different. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is set (mostly) shortly after World War 2, whereas THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is set mostly during the last generation of the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1260 and ended in 1368.

I know nothing of Chinese history, beyond what little can be gleaned from Disney’s MULAN and, later, the MULAN film that has Jackie Chan’s son in it. Luckily it is all perfectly illustrated and described for me through the eyes of Wang Meng, the man who would later be renowned as one of the ‘Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty’, but at the time of the novel was little more than a low level bureaucrat with little interest in much beyond painting.
We are first introduced to Wang Meng in prison, at seventy eight years old, seething at the ridiculous nature of his imprisonment. ‘for going to see a private art collection’ he writes, addressing the reader directly. Given time to dwell on little but his life, he resolves to document his life in the third person, ‘to experience it as a whole, as space, and perhaps perceive its pattern for the first time.’

I’m not a fan of quoting to much in reviews, but with the meandering, luxurious way that Spurling has created this life for us to experience it seems crude not to give such a novel a regard almost reverent when discussing it.

Because that’s what this book is. A luxurious, elegant, exquisite novel that feels as though you’re reading Wang Meng’s paintings as they’re created, as though its been written by hand on silk with a calligraphy brush, and I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Part of the appeal is undeniably down to the character Spurling has created in Wang Meng, a low level bureaucrat from an impressive family with no ambition, who in the first chapter loses a ring given to him by his grandfather, a famous artist and politician who worked under the Mongolian led Yuan Dynasty in its early years.

Wang’s such a wonderfully intricate person, that it almost seems disrespectful to call him a character. He’s so delightfully ordinary in that he dithers between sides in war, between the countryside and the city, and between his life as a husband and as a solitary man who prefers the company of his faithful servant, Deng.

There are no harsh descriptions of Wang, he is not introduced to us. There is no summing up of his temperament, or his desires, as he doesn’t seem to know them himself. We get to know him slowly, through his actions, his contemplations, his kindness, determination and his nervousness. He has no problem asserting himself at times, and then in seemingly similar situations dithers and meanders around the conversation to avoid disagreement.

Everything about him is a contradiction, and we truly feel led by his hand through the novel as no other characters are treated quite the same way. We get first impressions of his friend and peer Ni Zan, also historically one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, and of the rebel leader the White Tigress. We see all the other characters through Wang’s eyes, through his first meetings with them and how he considers their virtues and their faults.
This is one of those books that is so wholly immersive that you can’t read it in one sitting.

Each chapter tells a different story from Wang’s life, and the threads that tie them together are subtle, then stronger and more obvious towards the end. The way Wang describes a simple painting can take up a whole page of text, but while that sounds daunting it is really a rare pleasure to read a passage so devoted to describing one thing, but in a way that feels so natural. Before I ever googled the work of either Wang Meng, Ni Zan or even the old master whose painting is viewed at a party, Huang Gongwang, I had such a clear image in my head, such intimacy with their paintings that it felt almost spiritual seeing them on my computer screen. Artists so long dead, revived for fiction in Spurling’s novel.

Again, the only word I can think of is exquisite.

You get a little thrill every time the writer refers to ‘the so-called “ten thousand things” that make up the world’ in his writing, either when he first mentions it writing about his contemplations in a prison cell, or any time his muses over his place in them whilst going through his own past.

The tumultuous times between Dynasties, plagued by civil war and unrest, is all told to us through Wang Meng. He is involved in but deliberately distant from the high stakes game of choosing who to support, and indeed has ties to almost all of the different factions fighting each other. The best description is perhaps from Wang himself, when talking to a monk novice who has ascended to extraordinary heights:

‘“We should be like water.” said Wang, “finding our own level, accepting our own nature and our part in nature, as we observe and contemplate the ten thousand things and move amongst them, gaining knowledge of ourselves as we gain more knowledge of them, penetrating the mystery of the ordinary. This is what the philosopher Zhang Zhou called ‘riding on the normality of the universe’.”’

Although maybe this isn’t quite true, Wang is trying so hard to be a passive non-force in this passage, trying to avoid confrontation or choosing a side that I’m not sure this is the best way to describe him at all.

At the risk of over-indulging myself with quotes, I’ll resolve that this be the last.

‘“I am by nature detached,” said Ni. “Always have been, cannot be otherwise. You are the opposite, by nature attached. Your mountains [in your paintings] are right in your face, your trees are tangible, your pictures are full of houses and people. I like your pictures so much because I can have all that attachment without having to scramble up the cliffs or bump into the trees or get involved with the people. You like mine because you think you’d really prefer to be detached. And yes, in a way you are detached and I am attached- … So, how real are these distinctions we make?”’

Truth be told, I finished this book a couple of hours ago. I have so much to say but it feels like I’d be doing any readers of this a disservice by delving any deeper into it, as all I’d be doing is sorting it out for myself, writing down my thoughts and feelings as I let it sink in.
I even still have trouble calling it Spurling’s book. It feels so much Wang Meng’s that I’m having difficulty associating this novel with the hand of a London playwright, penned only recently.

The end of this book is remarkably well done too, and I finished it with a hollow feeling in my stomach that you only get when you finish a story that is going to stay with you for a very long time. Because it will, I can promise you that.

This book will stay with you for such a very long time.

It’s simply exquisite.

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is released in January 2014 by Duckworth Publishers.

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