A coward poet incites rebellion through poetry

Paul M.M. Cooper's debut novel, set in 13th-century Sri Lanka, revolves around a talented but self-serving poet, charged by a cruel king to translate an epic poem

Precocious is a good word to describe British author Paul M.M. Cooper, who at the age of 26, has already worked as an archivist, journalist, English teacher and is now a published author.

His first novel, River Of Ink, a historical novel set in 13th-century Sri Lanka, debuted last month to good reviews in The Financial Times and The Independent in Britain. The polyglot, who is fluent in English, French, German and Sinhala, has a master's in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

Languages play a big part in River Of Ink. Its story revolves around a talented but cowardly court poet Asanka being forced into the patronage of King Kalinga Magha from India, who invaded Polonnaruwa (in current Sri Lanka) in 1215.

Asanka's job is to translate a Sanskrit epic, The Slaying Of Shishupal, into Tamil. The epic chronicles how Lord Krishna, after being insulted by the evil king Shishupal, beheads the latter.

Magha wanted the classic translated into Tamil, which is spoken in Sri Lanka, to expose the barbaric natives to the civilising forces of art.

British author Paul M.M. Cooper is fluent in English, French, German and Sinhala. Languages play a big part in River Of Ink (above).

But Asanka, self-serving as he is, gradually finds himself an unlikely hero, subversively translating text that likens the king he serves to Shishupal.

Cooper says on the telephone to The Straits Times: "I think real courage differs from what you read about in epics. Courage comes from everyday people, who are forced into doing incredible things. Asanka is flawed, so he is in a way morally compromised. The line between collaboration with power and rebellion is very thin sometimes."

Cooper is now doing his PhD in creative and critical writing and is based in Norwich in the United Kingdom. Born to a geneticist father and community worker mother, he grew up in the port city of Cardiff in Wales and studied English language and literature at the University of Warwick.

Real courage differs from what you read about in epics. Courage comes from everyday people, who are forced into doing incredible things.


As a journalist, he has written for technology websites and contributed to publications such as the literary magazine Asymptote.

His mastery of German came in handy for the story of Asanka- the only non-Tamil translation of The Slaying Of Shishupal he could find was in German, so he translated the work to English himself.

On his blog titled What A Lot Of Birds, Cooper calls it the most "complex and beautifully wrought poem ever written", explaining in detail the metric structure as well as double meanings in the text.

The inspiration for his tale set in Polonnaruwa stemmed from 16th- century England. Cooper was intrigued by the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt and his suspected romantic involvement with Queen Anne Boleyn, the wife of King Henry VIII.

"Some scholars have argued that Wyatt wrote some poems for Anne Boleyn before her execution... It was a mystery I wanted to explore further, so I moved into the areas of art and power, and how those two interact," he explains.

He also studied other similar figures in history such as poet Ovid, who was exiled from Rome by the emperor Augustus and composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived and worked under the reign of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Cooper was partially inspired by a year spent teaching English in the former British colony, where he walked the ruins of the old city. He also read accounts of the city's history by Buddhist monks through the centuries.

His book attempts to fill in the gaps of what happened in 13thcentury Polonnaruwa, as information is scant on that subject.

"In the 30 years that Magha ruled, there's this amazing blank spot in history, when people were subject to such repression they couldn't write or whatever they did was destroyed," he says. "I think of historical fiction as a kind of research and historiography. You might be making assertions, but there's value in imagining what might have happened in certain situations.

"I hope (River Of Ink) can one day be translated into Sinhala and Tamil so people can read it in the language of the country it's set in."

  • River of Ink retails for $29 at major bookstores.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'A coward poet incites rebellion through poetry'. Print Edition | Subscribe