History tells stories and those stories about change, upheaval, or oppression should be compelling, as should historical fiction. What often makes them compelling are the words used to embellish settings, define crises, embody characters. In Paul M. M. Cooper’s lush debut novel, River of Ink, words are the centerpiece, the place settings, and the utensils of a table fit for a king—and his ultimate destruction.
In 13th century Sri Lanka, Asanka balances life as lover to Sarasi (a servant girl he is teaching to read and write) and being a royal poet in the court of King Parakrama of Polonnaruwa. The story begins with the city falling into the hands of the cruel Magha of Kalinga who conquers the kingdom handily. Impalements and beheadings become commonplace. Citizens live in fear that they will be the next to die.
Magha’s blood-thirsty side is tempered by a love of poetry, and he commissions Asanka to translate the epic Shishupal Vadha, a classical Sanskrit poem written centuries before into the Tamil spoken by his recently-conquered subjects. Magha believes it will be an educational tool showing the people that his gods are the true path to righteousness, rather than what the Buddha has taught them. Fearing for his and Sarasi’s lives, Asanka feels it is imperative to do the new king’s bidding by translating the epic in installments.
As he begins the work of translation, he fears the power of the original poem with its sophisticated structure, its unique ties to specific meanings, and the hidden messages contained within. Haunted by Sarasi telling him that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he struggles to infuse his work with something meaningful to the people, while concealing the mockery from Magha.
Tweaks in translation offer opportunities to turn Shishupal into a Magha-like character. The change of a word, the modification of a phrase or connotation begins to turn each succeeding installment of the vadha into a rallying, poetic battle cry for the peasants and villagers outside the city, while Asanka continues to fear his own long and painful death should Magha decipher the translation’s true intent.
Told in retrospect as a love letter from Asanka to Sarasi, Cooper’s highly-researched novel is based on the historical figures of Kalinga Magha who ruled Polonnaruwa from 1215-1236 CE after deposing King Parakrama Pandyan II who ruled from 1212-1215 CE. This research evolved from Cooper’s time spent in Sri Lanka teaching English, and in crafting this novel with its dreamlike qualities and deliberate, slow-paced prose, he opens the gates to Asanka’s Polonnaruwa without weighty exposition. The complexity of bringing an ancient civilization to life is accomplished with seemingly effortless skill, leaving the reader fulfilled and figuratively far from home.
Whether there ever was a royal poet commissioned to translate the Shishupala Vadha for Kalinga Magha matters not; there is enough historical framework to allow the telling of a story about love, loyalty, and the power of language. Had the author not used beautiful language in his novel about a royal poet’s challenges under a regime change, Cooper would have been remiss. However, his imagery cascades in precise similes (“Raindrops came down like judgement”) and metaphors (“I was a leaf caught in the canal, on its way out to sea”). Emotions and tensions heighten as Asanka works on each installment of the vadha (“I felt like the man who is sentenced to death but allowed to choose the method of his execution.”)
Interestingly, one of the novel’s two epigraphs transports the book’s theme into present-day America. An ancient Sinhala proverb states, “You can build a fence around the country, but you can’t build a fence around the mouth.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association.