Thursday, March 30, 2017

River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper: Resistance in 13th c. Sri Lanka

Writers and artists employ powerful tools that can shape how a society views itself, its past, and how it envisions its future. They are often the front line of resistance.

River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper came to my attention when the author followed me on Twitter. I downloaded a sample of his book and enjoyed his writing and bought a copy of River of Ink. (Yes, I bought a book, this was not a free review galley!)

The novel is fiction but the downfall of Sri Lanka under a destructive military takeover is history. It was fascinating to read about a time and place so foreign and unfamiliar.

"Do you remember the mynah birds that used to live in the courtyard outside your room? On the day the city fell, they were all twittering louder than I'd ever heard them, and flying from tree to tree in a flock. The noise was tremendous...You must remember this. You were sitting right there beside me, your back straight and your forehead furrowed, murmuring the letters to yourself as you cut them." from River Of Ink chapter one

Asanka is the court poet in the diverse, international Sri Lanka of the 13th c. He enjoys a pampered and luxurious life. He writes love poems for men wishing to please the women they love. His own love life is murky; his wife disdains him for he has a mistress, a palace servant, Sarasi. He is teaching her how to write.

The ink is mixed of charcoal and oil. A metal stylus cuts the palm leaf paper into sinuous shapes.

Life in Polonnaruwa changes in an instant when Kalinga Magha comes from the mainland with his army and elephants, intent on destroying the Sri Lankan civilization, looting and murdering his way to the capital. He murders Asanka's king, forces the queen into marriage, and demands that Asanka translate his favorite Hindu sacred text into Tamil, the language of the working class. Magha intends to enlighten the Buddhists with a story of dharma, the battle between lord Krishna and Shishepal over the girl they both love. Magha demands the burning of books as part of his cultural takeover. And finally, Magha decides to take Asanka's love for his own queen.

The downfall of a society, a city, a culture is a horrible thing to read about, and I was very aware that it has happened over and over again throughout the ages. Powerful men believe they bring a better religion or government to justify their motives. And the ordinary people are trampled and murdered, and yes, resistance groups rise up. In the story of the particular lies the story of human history.

In his acknowledgments, Cooper finishes by saying "Finally this book goes out to all the translators, artists and writers around the world who continue to create beauty and freedom from beneath the heel of oppression. Today you are more necessary and powerful than you could possibly imagine."

River of Ink is an impressive book that both entertains, enlightens, and inspires.

River of Ink
Paul M. M. Cooper
Bloomsbury