A Tale of a Cowardly Hero

River of Ink, by Paul M. M. Cooper, (Bloomsbury USA), 304 pages, release date 26 January, 2016

Paul M. M. Cooper’s River of Ink is a remarkably beautiful book; it is also thought-provoking. The book tells the story of Asanka, once a poor boy from the countryside, now court poet for the kingdom of Lanka. Asanka spends his time writing, conversing with the king, and teaching his lover, a palace maid named Sarasi, how to read and write.

The book’s action takes place in the 13th Century and opens at the moment when Asanka’s mostly idyllic life (he is also unhappily married) is torn apart. An invading army is approaching the palace; the king decides to surrender, rather than put his people through the devastation of war. The new ruler, Kalinga Magha, comes from the mainland and has little respect for Lanka’s island culture. In an effort to “civilize” the Lankans, he assigns Asanka the task of translating a an epic Sanskrit poem, the Shishupala Vadha, into Tamil, the local language. The new ruler will then distribute copies of the translation throughout the country to be read aloud to all his subjects.

In many ways, Asanka isn’t much of a hero. He has little empathy for his estranged wife. In the chaos of the conquest his only thoughts are for himself and Sarasi. He reads every word and gesture from Kalinga Magha as a possible omen of punishment or death. While he does not like the new ruler, Asanka is eager to serve him if this will guarantee his safety.

Nonetheless, Asanka becomes a hero in the eyes of the Lankan people. They take the first installment of his translation of the poem as a critique of the new government, conflating the vicious ruler Shishupala with Kalinga Magha. With great trepidation, Asanka attempts to become the man others see him as. In the second installment, he deliberately suggests parallels between the two rulers. Then terrified by what he’s done, he translates the third installment without any revolutionary additions. As the translation project continues, Asanka receives a series of unusual poetry manuscripts containing pieces retelling the tale of the Shishupala Magha from the perspective of its different characters. The literary bravery of this unknown poet, who casts aside the expected forms of Lankan poetry, inspires Asanka to continue his efforts at undermining Kalinga Magha.

While Asanka frets and compromises, Sirasi is more sure of her own stance. She identifies with the Lankan  villagers and spends her time away from the palace among them. She urges Asanka to take advantage of his position to help the island nation.

Because Asanka isn’t much of a hero, he is a character with whom mordern readers can identify. In our own lives, we often take the cautious, self-preserving route chosen by Asanka, rather than challenge injustice. We may wish for more from Asanka, but we can certainly empathize with him.

The beauty of the book’s prose contrasts starkly with Asanka’s uncertainty and willingness to compromise. It simultaneously offers the pleasures of finely crafted prose and the discomfort of critical self-reflection. Even if 13th Century Lanka seems greatly removed from our current world, A River of Ink has much to offer present-day readers.

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