REVIEW by Daniel Leeman

NWR Issue r6

River of Ink

by Paul MM Cooper

Paul MM Cooper’s life has taken him far abroad. Although born in London, he spent his childhood in Wales, later studying at the University of Warwick and University of East Anglia. He received a Prose Fiction MA from the latter, then moved to Sri Lanka, where he taught English and studied ruins in his spare time. His debut novel, River of Ink, is set in thirteenth-century Lanka.

Cooper does a fine job of familiarising the reader with the medieval and foreign norms presented in the book, clearly representing information on court politics, history, geography, language and literature that a court poet such as Asanka, the narrator, would possess. This is achieved through Asanka’s being a natural observer and storyteller. He is someone who, for all his shortcomings, manages to know and say everything necessary to remain ahead in the chaotic world he inhabits. For example, when the conqueror Magha Kalinga takes control of the poet’s city, as the only one with sufficient understanding of Sanskrit to translate Magha’s favourite text, the Shishupala Vadha, Asanka makes himself useful.

Asanka’s translation forms the key structure of the novel, around which many plots revolve. Saddened by the city’s capture, the poet comes to believe [in WH Auden’s phrase] that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Over the course of the novel, however, the reader witnesses the rippling effects that Asanka’s work has throughout the populace, as well as the changes it brings about in his relationship with Sarasi, the servant who he has taken for his mistress. It is through this translation that the narrator’s world is drowned in the eponymous river of ink.

The second-person narration has Asanka addressing the reader as though they are Sarasi, someone who guilt and regret demand he communicate with confessionally: ‘Right then, right at that moment, I could have changed everything: grabbed your wrist, told you to pack your bags. But I was never the kind to take sharp turns in life, any more than the water in a river decides one day to flow over the hills.’

This mode of address allows the reader to feel as though they share a unique and intimate relationship with the narrator. The thoughts that creep into the text when he addresses Sarasi are, in some ways, more honest and authentic than anything he admits to himself while musing. Sadly, these brief glimpses into the life of Sarasi draw attention to one of the novel’s flaws; while Asanka might be a realistic character, he is not a character who is interesting enough to follow throughout the length of a novel. My disappointment stems from his lack of any real agency. His resourcefulness comes from knowledge he already possessed before the time frame of the novel. The impression given is one of Asanka having been designed for the role he plays; he is so perfectly suited to every situation he is placed in that he does not have to act or think; he merely needs to recite the lines other characters expect him to say.

These aspects of Asanka were, in all likelihood, deliberate on the part of Cooper: a way to differentiate the poet from warriors like Magha, a technique a student of literature appreciates. As a reader, however, I wasn’t invested in so inadvertently charmed a character. What allowed me to keep reading was Cooper’s ability to recreate a world which no longer exists, for instance when Asanka walks the streets of the city on his way to buy fruit. The snippets of conversation between soldiers and merchants, the sights and smells summoned, all of this allowed me to feel as though I were experiencing the setting first-hand.

The spearmen came up close behind me, and I pricked up my ears to gain some clue about their plans for me. They were just talking to each other. Tamil was their common language, and the one with the deeper voice, whose mastic breathing identified him as the betel-chewer, was complaining about the heat.

River of Ink is an outstanding novel from a very talented debut author. With a sharpening of characterisation in future works, his name has the potential to become synonymous with historical literature. I can still picture the opening scenes: the city under siege, the poet called to his king, and the feeling that a world long dead is breathing once again. Cooper has done something which all good authors must do: he has written a novel that transcends the page and continues to exist in mind of the reader.

Daniel Leeman was, until recently, Publishing Project Support Officer at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.


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