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River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper

River of Ink

by Paul M. M. Cooper

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Although I'd recommend this book to any visitor to Sri Lanka as a vivid look at a time and place most non-Lankans know nothing about, I found it a dispiriting read. Asanka, the poet-protagonist, is constitutionally timid and perpetually anxious, and he has much to be anxious about: his new master, the foreign conquerer Kalinga Magha, is a suspicious, capricious sadist always ready to torture to death anyone who doesn't seem to love him enough. The experience of living inside the head of a mouselike man who expects at any time a fate quite literally worse than death was exhausting and depressing.

Aside from Magha, whose narcissism and incapacity for reflection are similar to the traits of certain present-day rulers, none of the supporting characters are fully developed, perhaps because our narrator is so self-absorbed in his fear. The book's strengths are in the depth of its research and the fullness of its description of its time and place. But they're overwhelmed by the gray, humorless anxiety that pervades almost every scene from first to last. ( )
  john.cooper | Aug 30, 2018 |
Lush and vivid - a mesmerizing tale of a poet caught in an invasion of medieval Sri Lanka.

Polonnaruwa, one of the kingdoms of "Lanka" in 1215 AD, is invaded by the Indian Kalinga Magha, who pillages and destroys the area to take whatever he can find of value, forever changing the social and cultural landscape of the island. In this re-imagined telling, the defeated king's court poet, Asanka, survives the sacking and, in exchange for his life, is charged with translating from Sanskrit into Tamil the Hindu masterpiece "Shishupala Vadha". Magha is convinced the locals will hear the epic and realize the superiority and wisdom of their new masters. Terrified, and assailed by guilt for not refusing the invader, Asanka begins the work, only to become besotted by the language of the original. He's an excellent translator and poet, but his guilt eats at him, and then he starts finding unsigned stories, told from the point of view of the epic's characters, secretly delivered to his door. He begins to see that he can do his part to undermine Magha by incorporating certain detestable facts about him into the narrative, facts which he knows the local populace will find laughable.

Asanka's story is addressed to his lover, a palace servant girl. His longing for her and fear for her safety permeate the novel, and there is a suspense to the story that makes for just as compelling reading as does the beauty of the writing. It's unclear whether either of them will survive Magha's rule, and for most of the book I suspected Asanka might be writing this from a prison cell while awaiting execution. But, without giving anything away, let me just say this was a story I loved from beginning to end, savoring each word. I desperately wanted to find out the characters' futures but didn't want the book to end, but, when I reached it, the ending was perfect. And, my highest praise: I can see myself rereading this, something I rarely do. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Jul 14, 2017 |
I was keen to read this after visiting Sri Lanka last year and reading a couple of favourable reviews.

I enjoyed it a lot - the pace is quite slow and, on the face of it, not a lot happens. But I loved the many references to Indian and Sri Lankan mythology, and Cooper's descriptive style of writing.

I would've loved to have read it while I was reclining within sight of Sigiriya! ( )
1 vote mooingzelda | Apr 8, 2017 |
I was intrigued to hear about this book because of its unusual setting, thirteenth-century Sri Lanka. In 1215 the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa was conquered by the Indian prince Kalinga Magha. River of Ink imagines that the court poet is asked by the new king to translate an epic Sanskrit poem into Tamil, as part of his mission to 'civilise' the people he now rules and help them understand that they have been conquered by a superior people. The king is brutal and murderous, but the terrified poet finds ways to sneak in subtle satire and criticism into his version. Magha loves the translation, though, and interprets it as justifying his harsh rule.

What worked about the book?

The author is a Brit who taught English in Sri Lanka for a time, and he clearly immersed himself in Sri Lankan history and culture. There are several lovely quotations from classic Tamil poetry, and the poet's voice is well-imagined - he uses many similes, which all feel very realistic for his time and place: "Perhaps in ceasing my mockery of the King I had merely drawn attention to it, the way one sometimes only notices the chirp of the cicadas when they stop." "[The crowd] hushed gradually, the noise dying in a pattern like the fall of raindrops."

The language of the book manages to be poetic without being flowery or orientalist. I think he achieves this through simple, specific details, vivid to our senses: ...the soldiers' backs steamed in the heat. Unable to watch, I looked down at the dust and loam beneath my feet, at a single stamped okra finger and a pink rambutan skin, a blood-spatter of spat betel juice. There are such enormous termites in Polonnaruwa, so large you can see the dust on their backs. I remember following their lines to where the mounds rose between the buildings, homes for cobras, monuments to their own futility.

Unfortunately, there were also some key things which didn't work for me.

One was the pace. For a book about destruction and conquest, love and epic poetry, not much happens! Or at least, the ratio of things happening to things not-happening is too high.

Partly this is the fault of the narrator, who spends a lot of time being frightened and worried at great length. It is possible to show that your hero is indecisive and cowardly without needing to dither on every page. I hate ditheriness in real life and it turns out, in literature too (sorry, Hamlet).

And finally, the romance at the centre of the book. I was not invested in this, perhaps because of my annoyance with the narrator, or perhaps because the description of the relationship was not as vivid as the description of their physical environment. This reduced the stakes.

So for me, only a middle-ranking read, although I would have liked it much more if it had been shorter. ( )
  wandering_star | Jan 19, 2017 |
Wnat a brilliant book by a young first time author. A modern day saga. Using a court poet to bring to life the ruined palace of Polonaruwa in Sri Lanka. Love, intrigue, war, honour and dishonour. All done through the lens of Sri Lankan history and Indian epic poetry. For a non-native Sinhala or Tamil speaker to achieve such and understanding and interpretation and put it into everyday language is testament to the depths of work and involvement that the author applied. Great stuff. ( )
  Steve38 | Jul 14, 2016 |
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In thirteenth-century Sri Lanka, Asanka, poet to the king, lives a life of luxury, enjoying courtly life and a sweet, furtive love affair with a palace servant, a village girl he is teaching to write. But when Magha, a prince from the mainland, usurps the throne, Asanka's role as court poet dramatically alters. Magha is a cruel and calculating king--and yet, a lover of poetry--and he commissions Asanka to translate a holy Sanskrit epic into the Tamil language spoken by his recently acquired subjects. The poem will be an olive branch--a symbol of unity between the two cultures. But in different languages, in different contexts, meaning can become slippery.… (more)

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