I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, at all, going into it. I’ve never heard of Mark Frutkin. I saw A Message for the Emperor on my library’s new books shelf, and the description sounded intriguing. I wasn’t quite sure about it. The slimness of the volume seemed suspect. I was worried that I would have a hard time enjoying or following the plot, that the characters would be too stylized and not very real. I wasn’t sure how Frutkin was going to make "painter travels across ancient China to paint the four seasons and give a message to the Emperor" matter to me.
In other words, this book was just daring me to read it. So I did. I don’t regret it.
A Message for the Emperor is a romp of self-discovery for the main character, Li Wen. He has mastered painting and has nothing left to learn from his teacher, who decides to send him all the way across the country to its capital. Along the way, Wen will do one painting for each of the four seasons it will take to complete his journey. The paintings will be a long-life gift to the Emperor, and Wen will also carry a secret message from his teacher. (We even get to learn what the message says later in the book!) Wen is ambivalent about the journey at first, but he quickly warns to the idea of wandering. Through a few adventures along the way, he starts to discover capacities within himself that he didn’t previously recognize. And he re-learns important lessons that had faded and dulled through the passage of time.
Without verging too far into spoiler territory, I don’t think it’s outrageous for me to reveal that, yes, Wen makes it to the capital to see the Emperor, and that the dangers he encounters on the way there are not all that serious. There was little doubt, in my mind, that he would ever suffer permanent injury or lose his precious painter’s kit. These were experiences more than they were obstacles. This is far from realistic for any journey, but hey, that’s fiction for you. A Message for the Emperor is a little bit of a fantasy in the sense that Wen’s encounters are more symbolic and psychological than anything else. We’re supposed to sit back and enjoy the ride, and through his lyrical prose, Frutkin makes that easy to do.
The only sense of menace, then, surfaces in the capital itself, after Wen has presented his gift to the Emperor. Of course, as a simple country bumpkin, Wen stumbles into the viper’s nest of political intrigue surrounding the Son of Heaven. He makes some powerful enemies. And at this point, Wen’s fate becomes less certain. There is a flimsy frame story constructed around the main narrative, where a modern-day curator is inspecting the recently rediscovered paintings that Wen gave to the Emperor. If they were lost so quickly, what happened to the artist? Maybe Wen doesn’t make it out of the capital alive….
To get the most out of this book, though, you just have to commit to enjoy the writing. Frutkin excels at making Wen’s mastery of painting apparent. I am not very good at visualizing imagery, but even I was able to conjure up some vague ideas of the types of paintings Wen could create. Rather than take a purely clinical, technical approach, Frutkin inextricably links the act of painting with the acts of observation and reflection. Painting is poetry, as demonstrated by the verse that Wen embeds in each of his work. Painting is a reaction and a response to the nature that he says around him. All this comes alive in Frutkin’s hands, and it’s really quite fulfilling to read. The cover of this edition is very minimalist: burnished orange gradient with the title and author in a simple, unadorned font; a single, thin paintbrush that tapers to an elegant tip interjects itself, its shadow also visible. This embodies perfectly the stillness that Frutkin invokes, despite this being a novel about travelling.
I read this on a warm summer’s day, sitting outside in my favourite reading spot in front of our house. My dad sat in a lawn chair next to me, nose buried in a book of his own. Music played in the background. And this was the perfect kind of book for a day like that. As I sat there, sipping at my tea and reflecting on Wen’s latest experience, I said to myself, “This is how summer should be.” In two weeks, I’m back in England for another year of teaching. My summer has been briefer than I expected and gone by all too fast. But a good book is like a good bath: it washes away all the cares and concerns and reminds you how to be calm, how to be still, how to enjoy the perfect present.