If you have read “The Hare with the Amber Eyes,’’ you will recognize the voice of the narrator of “The White Road.’’ It is the same gentle soul on a pilgrimage, the same gifted storyteller, the same sensitive, searching mind with a “list of questions and possibilities [that] veers urgently from the mundane to the metaphysical.”
If not, then the one thing you need to know is that Edmund de Waal is a world-class ceramicist best known for his large-scale installations of white pots. His first book traced the history of a collection of small Japanese carvings, known as netsuke, which had been in his family for generations. It was a story of objects and the love people have for them.
This time, the subject is porcelain, the medium in which de Waal primarily works, and a substance with odd alchemical properties. Porcelain is made from a mixture of rare ingredients, special types of rock and clay in precise and often secret proportions, which when heated to some outlandish temperature, goes through a metamorphosis and becomes something else again.
Porcelain has a long history of inspiring obsession; there is even a term for this: Porzellankrankheit or “porcelain sickness.” In earlier centuries kings and emperors assembled monstrous collections at enormous cost. Would-be manufacturers sent emissaries around the globe in search of the perfect raw materials. People lied about how to make it and were imprisoned until they gave up what they knew. Workers — dippers, scourers, kiln tenders — died from prolonged exposure to cobalt and dust. But nothing has ever quenched the thirst for “this grandest of commodities,” this bankrupter of princes, “this white gold.”
“The White Road’’ is the story of the way three separate peoples unlocked the secret of porcelain. It begins, appropriately enough, in China, where porcelain has been made for over 1,000 years. “I realise,” writes de Waal, “how amateur Western obsessions are in comparison with the energy of classification” exhibited by the Chinese.
Ancient lists of ingredients classify them as “official old, superior old, middling old, sweepings.” Likewise the poetry of Chinese descriptive terminology: sky after rain, kingfishers, and iced water are just a few of the different types of celadons, a color between green and blue.
From China, de Waal’s quest takes him to Germany, to Dresden and Meissen, where, Europeans finally discovered the secret of porcelain for themselves at the dawn of the 18th century. Then it’s back to England to retrace the history of English porcelain, beginning with the mild apothecary William Cookworthy and culminating, of course, with the great enterprise of the fiercely entrepreneurial Josiah Wedgwood.
This, however, is not quite the end of the story, for de Waal then makes a swift pass through revolutionary Russia, China under Mao, and finally, in a short but searing section, Dachau where, during World War II the Nazis maintained a factory for the production of porcelain figurines.
“In terms of storytelling,” de Waal writes, “I wonder about how many times I can write about setting out.” And there is something meandering about this book. At about 400 pages, it is long, and there are places where the author himself seems ready to tear his own hair out at the challenge of making a narrative out of all that he has gathered.
“I have no idea how to find what I am looking for,” he writes. “My papers and files are in disarray.” “I run my hands over this ridiculous heap of possibilities.” “What,” he asks, “have I missed?”
Early in the book, when he is still in China, de Waal describes a Chinese anthology of writings on porcelain, a kind of scrapbook, called the Tao Shu. “I find more and more reassurance in its randomness.” And a short time later, writing of his own work: “[T]here are so many stories that a scrapbook seems the only way of collecting them.”
This seems an apt characterization of the book de Waal has himself produced. “The White Road’’ is filled with marvelous examples of storytelling, and de Waal has a gift for inhabiting his characters. Also, the historical material is interleaved with stories from de Waal’s own life as a ceramicist, which adds an extra and very welcome dimension to the tale. But it is at heart an elliptical work, sketching rather than defining, impressionistic rather than explanatory, gestural rather than logical, rather like a kind of visual art.
What holds it together finally is the voice of the narrator: the kindly father, the intrepid traveler, the thoughtful reader, and the maker of thousands upon thousands of porcelain pots.
THE WHITE ROAD:
Journey into Obsession
By Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 401 pp., $27Christina Thompson is the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All’’ and the editor of Harvard Review.