These people are not the kind to lose themselves inside a painting

I fall into the bad rhythm of not posting for weeks at a time when too much of what I’m reading at any moment doesn’t lend itself to easy extracts. Such is today’s Ho Wang-Fo Was Saved from Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales (Nouvelles Orientales) but it’s too nice to let pass – and reminiscent of my favorite Marcel Schwob tale of Paolo Uccello. I’m bad at summaries and it would anyway be better to read the brief whole (a different English translation than the one given below and done by Alberto Manguel in collaboration with Yourcenar) so all I’ll add is a spoiler warning.

You can also watch the animated adaptation here, though it’s French only.

Upon a sign from the Emperor’s little finger, two eunuchs respectfully brought forward the unfinished scroll on which Wang-Fa had outlined the image of the sea and the sky. Wang-Fa dried his tears and smiled, because that small sketch reminded him of his youth. Everything in it spoke of a fresh new spirit which Wang-Fa could no longer claim as his, and yet something was missing from it, because when Wang had painted it he had not yet looked long enough at the mountains or at the rocks bathing their naked flanks in the sea, and he had not yet penetrated deep enough into the sadness of the evening twilight. Wang-Fa selected one of the brushes which a slave held ready for him and began spreading wide strokes of blue onto the unfinished sea. A eunuch crouched by his feet, mixing the colors; he carried out his task with little skill, and more than ever Wang-Fa lamented the loss of his disciple Ling.

Wang began by adding a touch of pink to the tip of the wing of a cloud perched on a mountain. Then he painted onto the surface of the sea a few small lines that deepened the perfect feeling of calm. The jade floor became increasingly damp, but Wang-Fa, absorbed as he was in his painting, did not seem to notice that he was working with his feet in water.

The fragile rowboat grew under the strokes of the painter’s brush and now occupied the entire foreground of the silken scroll. The rhythmic sound of the oars rose suddenly in the distance, quick and eager like the beating of wings. The sound came nearer, gently filling the whole room, then ceased, and a few trembling drops appeared on the boatman’s oars. The red iron intended for Wang’s eyes lay extinguished on the executioner’s coals. The courtiers, motionless as etiquette required, stood in water up to their shoulders, trying to lift themselves onto the tips of their toes. The water finally reached the level of the imperial heart. The silence was so deep one could have heard a tear drop.

It was Ling. He wore his everyday robe, and his right sleeve still had a hole that he had not had time to mend that morning before the soldiers’ arrival. But around his neck was tied a strange red scarf.

Wang-Fo said to him softly, while he continued painting, “I thought you were dead.” “You being alive,” said Ling respectfully, “how could I have died?”

And he helped his master into the boat. The jade ceiling reflected itself in the water, so that Ling seemed to be inside a cave. The pigtails of submerged courtiers rippled up toward the surface like snakes, and the pale head of the Emperor floated like a lotus.

“Look at them,” said Wang-Fa sadly. “These wretches will die, if they are not dead already. I never thought there was enough water in the sea to drown an Emperor. What are we to do?”

“Master, have no fear,” murmured the disciple. “They will soon be dry again and will not even remember that their sleeves were ever wet. Only the Emperor will keep in his heart a little of the bitterness of the sea. These people are not the kind to lose themselves inside a painting.”

And the french.

Sur un signe du petit doigt de l’Empereur, deux eunuques apportèrent respectueusement la peinture inachevée où Wang-Fô avait tracé l’image de la mer et du ciel. Wang-Fô sécha ses larmes et sourit, car cette petite esquisse lui rappelait sa jeunesse. Tout y attestait une fraîcheur d’âme à laquelle Wang-Fô ne pouvait plus prétendre, mais il y manquait cependant quelque chose, car à l’époque où Wang l’avait peinte, il n’avait pas encore assez contemplé de montagnes, ni de rochers baignant dans la mer leurs flancs nus, et ne s’était pas assez pénétré de la tristesse du crépuscule. Wang-Fô choisit un des pinceaux que lui présentait un esclave et se mit à étendre sur la mer inachevée de larges coulées bleues. Un eunuque accroupi à ses pieds broyait les couleurs ; il s’acquittait assez mal de cette besogne, et plus que jamais Wang-Fô regretta son disciple Ling.

Wang commença par teinter de rose le bout de l’aile d’un nuage posé sur une montagne. Puis il ajouta à la surface de la mer de petites rides qui ne faisaient que rendre plus profond le sentiment de sa sérénité. Le pavement de jade devenait singulièrement humide, mais Wang-Fô, absorbé dans sa peinture, ne s’apercevait pas qu’il travaillait assis dans l’eau.

Le frêle canot grossi sous les coups de pinceau du peintre occupait maintenant tout le premier plan du rouleau de soie. Le bruit cadencé des rames s’éleva soudain dans la distance, rapide et vif comme un battement d’aile. Le bruit se rapprocha, emplit doucement toute la salle, puis cessa, et des gouttes tremblaient, immobiles, suspendues aux avirons du batelier. Depuis longtemps, le fer rouge destiné aux yeux de Wang s’était éteint sur le brasier du bourreau. Dans l’eau jusqu’aux épaules, les courtisans, immobilisés par l’étiquette, se soulevaient sur la pointe des pieds. L’eau atteignit enfin au niveau du cœur impérial. Le silence était si profond qu’on eût entendu tomber des larmes.

C’était bien Ling. Il avait sa vieille robe de tous les jours, et sa manche droite portait encore les traces d’un accroc qu’il n’avait pas eu le temps de réparer, le matin, avant l’arrivée des soldats. Mais il avait autour du cou une étrange écharpe rouge.

Wang-Fô lui dit doucement en continuant à peindre :

— Je te croyais mort.

— Vous vivant, dit respectueusement Ling, comment aurais-je pu mourir ?

Et il aida le maître à monter en barque. Le plafond de jade se reflétait sur l’eau, de sorte que Ling paraissait naviguer à l’intérieur d’une grotte. Les tresses des courtisans submergés ondulaient à la surface comme des serpents, et la tête pâle de l’Empereur flottait comme un lotus.

— Regarde, mon disciple, dit mélancoliquement Wang-Fô. Ces malheureux vont périr, si ce n’est déjà fait. Je ne me doutais pas qu’il y avait assez d’eau dans la mer pour noyer un Empereur. Que faire ?

— Ne crains rien, Maître, murmura le disciple. Bientôt, ils se trouveront à sec et ne se souviendront même pas que leur manche ait jamais été mouillée. Seul, l’Empereur gardera au cœur un peu d’amertume marine. Ces gens ne sont pas faits pour se perdre à l’intérieur d’une peinture.

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