Herewith an excerpt from Mark Frutkin’s strange and wonderful new novel, A Message for the Emperor just published by Véhicule Press. Mixing the past and the present, Frutkin tells the story of Li Wen, a landscape painter of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), who is on a journey to deliver a message to the Chinese Emperor in the far-off capital city of Linan. His teacher has instructed him to paint four landscapes, one for each season, during the year it will take him to travel across China to the Emperor’s Court where he is to present the paintings to the Emperor as a long-life gift. Part historical drama, part fable, part picaresque, part cultural criticism, A Message for the Emperor follows Li Wen on a series of (artful) adventures (including burial in an ancient tomb).
Frutkin grew up in Cleveland before moving to Canada during the Vietnam War, settling there (he lives in Ottawa) and making his way as a writer. He is one of a brave band of American/Canadians of that era, many of whom had a profound influence on the development of a nascent Canadian literary brand in the 60s and 70s. For a lively recollection of his early years in the Great White North, read his 2008 memoir Erratic North, A Vietnam Draft Resister’s Life in the Canadian Bush (Dundurn).
His previous novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His most recent publication (September 2011) is a travel memoir, Walking Backwards: Grand Tours, Minor Visitations, Miraculous Journeys and a Few Good Meals. His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.
The curator of Chinese art swings open the door of his office at the museum, notes with surprise that the new paintings have arrived, places his take-out coffee on a corner of his desk and pries off the lid. He stares at the coffee a moment – brown as the sound of a cello – refusing to look up, in an attempt to delay gratification at the arrival of the long-awaited paintings.
He notices a message, unsigned, waits on his desk. Picking it up, he reads: No room in storage for these at the moment. I installed them here for the time being, figured you wanted them close by.
Finally, lifting his gaze, he considers the paintings – four Chinese landscapes – that hang down like banners from the ceiling. Spring, on the far left, ripples from an unseen air current.
Four Seasons in China by the Song Dynasty artist Li Wen comes with an intriguing provenance that caught the curator’s attention when he first heard the story. The paintings were recorded in the Imperial Catalogue of 1275, a thick volume which held a complete inventory of the Chinese Emperor’s artistic holdings. A later catalogue from the Ming Dynasty failed to include them. Somehow the paintings were lost, likely due to the chaos that followed the arrival of the Mongol armies in the south of China during the late thirteenth century. And lost they had remained until rediscovered the previous year rolled up inside a bamboo tube in the basement of a Chinese antique dealer’s in old Chinatown. Surprisingly well-preserved, each painting is exactly twenty-two inches in width by forty-eight in length.
The curator opens the top drawer of his desk and removes a rectangular magnifying glass, its handle cross-hatched with notches. He paces back and forth, considering the paintings, the magnifying glass in his right hand. He longs to examine them in detail, to explore their worlds, to wander freely through those landscapes. Pulling his chair close, he settles before the painting of spring and begins. By mid-morning, the curator’s arm has grown tired of holding the magnifying glass. He decides to switch to a more powerful lens. For close-up work he sometimes uses goggles with eye-socket loupes, a type favoured by jewellers. These he can wear mounted on his head, leaving his hands free. He finds the loupes provide an astonishing clarity.
Returning to the painting of spring, the curator delves back into the mountains, deep into their crags, crevices and ravines. Easing his way through shaded forests and gorges, he climbs twisting paths. He enters and begins crossing the broad valley laid out before him, divided into rice paddies. Through the long afternoon he wanders. By early evening, he is alone in the museum, lost in the never-ending forests of China.
Removing the goggles for a moment, he twists his head around – trying to loosen his neck muscles. Replacing the headset, he leans forward in his chair, focusing now on the landscape of autumn.
At the foot of a mountain, next to a multi-fingered lake, stands an open-sided pavilion surrounded by cassia trees. He can smell their faint evergreen-cinnamon scent. Inside the pavilion he sees a man—he’s bald so he must be a monk—sitting and talking to someone unseen. On a low lacquered table before the monk rests a cup of tea. With exquisite precision and subtlety, the artist has depicted the twisting thread of steam from the cup of tea as it drifts up into the mountains and forms a trail beneath the mist-shrouded trees, a thin grey line winding through patches of mountain spruce, larch, pine and oak.
He notices a figure walking along this trail with what appears to be an oversized load upon his back. At first the curator guesses the image is a woodsman bearing a heap of firewood but when he increases the power on the magnifying loupes, he realizes it isn’t firewood at all but a bulky, laden pack. Something straight and narrow with a furred end sticks up from its side.
The curator leans back in his chair. A brush, he whispers aloud, it’s a brush.
Li Wen hiked along the trail, the loaded pack weighing heavier and heavier as he climbed through the autumn mountains. Already half the leaves on the maples and oaks had fallen, and the pines and spruce grew darker with each passing day, with each night of lavish frost. As he tramped the path, Wen felt as if something was watching him from behind. Turning, he glanced back the way he had come. The previous day a hunter had told him that tigers were known to haunt these mountains. His heart thumping in his ears, he noticed back along the trail a patch of mottled bamboo shivering in a breeze. But he saw no sign of an animal. Breathing deeply and sighing, he trudged on.
Again he paused, gazed back into the forest, into the tops of the towering pines, and the river of blue silk sky high above. Suddenly everything felt upside down, as if the slit above was a rough stream rushing through a heavily wooded gorge. White mist drifted from the pines. With the vision of the mist came the memory of his master in the pavilion at the monastery. Everything that Li Wen knew about calligraphy and painting he had learned from his master, Fu Wei.
Wen’s last meeting with his master had taken place three days earlier. It had begun like a hundred other previous sessions. That afternoon, however, Master Wei’s cup of tea seemed to be emitting an unusual amount of steam. Wen considered that the steam from his own cup appeared rather meagre by comparison.
Wen had initiated the conversation: “One day I feel I am the greatest painter of the South and the next I believe I have never executed a single true stroke. I fear I must leave this place. It seems as if I have been doing the same painting over and over for the past two years.”
Master Wei nodded.
Fu Wei was a man of average height and stocky build, but he seemed larger than life, solid and immovable, with a core of iron. And yet, at times it struck Wen that Master Wei was hardly there at all, as if he could pass his hand right through him.
Fu Wei’s style name was One Tooth. How does one gain a sobriquet like One Tooth? Wen wondered, not for the first time. Especially as he seems to have most of his teeth but, in fact, has only one eye.
Li Wen continued his complaint. “I must leave. I am learning nothing here. I am the worst of students.”
Master Wei took a sip of tea, nodded again, said nothing.
“Perhaps because I am the worst of students, I am giving you a reputation as the worst of teachers.”
Fu Wei spoke: “I don’t require a student to make me a teacher.”
Wen persisted: “But what am I doing here?”
Wei countered with a question, as he often did. “What do you think?”
Their interviews were always like this, the push and pull, the struggle to arrive somewhere. But where?
Wen answered: “I don’t know. I just feel that I must leave. I believe I can learn nothing more here.”
Master Wei nodded, remained silent.
“I have drunk a thousand cups of tea in this room and today I feel as if I have learned nothing.”
This time, One Tooth did not nod, but sipped from his cup, his single eye piercing as he looked at his student. Finishing his tea, he turned his cup upside down on the low table. “You are correct. Our work together is done.”
Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). His most recent publication is a collection of short essays, Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Quattro, 2012). Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. He blogs at www.markfrutkin.blogspot.com.