River Of Ink

By Paul M.M. Cooper

Bloomsbury/Hardcover/304 pages/ $37.86/ Books Kinokuniya/****

In 13th-century Sri Lanka, the capricious and cruel Indian king Kalinga Magha invaded the city of Polonnaruwa, beheading its ruler, sacking its libraries and temples, and enslaving its people.

The scenes of carnage and upheaval set the stage for 26-year-old British author Paul M.M. Cooper's literary debut, a finely wrought work of historical fiction as poetic and grand as the Sanskrit epics it pays tribute to.

The author impresses with his nuanced handling of multiple story threads and themes such as heroism and the power of the written word, as well as with his painstaking research - he spent a year teaching in Sri Lanka, where he wandered the ruins of old Polonnaruwa.

One can almost smell and hear Cooper's Polonnaruwa, rendered through lush, flowing prose. The brutish occupying soldiers have "histories of violence scrawled into their skins", while the city streets were "broad rivers of people", swathed in dust, loam and a relentless, oppressive heat. The evening sky blushes "many different shades of purple and dark blue, a dish of old plums".

The protagonist is a scholar named Asanka, who, unlike the mighty gods and warriors he writes about, is a chicken-hearted fellow.

Much to his wife's ire, he kindles an illicit romance with Sarasi, a bravely defiant Indian servant, to whom the book is addressed, giving it an epistolary, intimate feel.

In exchange for his life, he readily agrees to translate the Slaying Of Shishupal, a Sanskrit epic about a foolish king, into Tamil, for King Magha to distribute throughout the land to civilise the natives.

The joke is turned on Magha when Asanka draws parallels between him and the mad King Shishupal, subversively deriding him in front of the commoners.

Even as he unwittingly incites a revolution through his writing, Asanka remains the fearful, insecure and flawed person he has always been, driven only by his two greatest loves - Sarasi and writing. Cooper understands that heroes are seldom born, but are forced to emerge out of difficult circumstances and love.

He is an author who is attuned to the inherent unreliability of storytelling.

River Of Ink is awash with layered meanings. It is, after all, a story about a poet translating a work, interwoven with stories which distort the meaning of said work.

At one point, a translation sent to Asanka reads: "Stories are like words: they change what they mean every time someone tells them, but they belong to no one."

It is a fitting summary for River Of Ink, a historic yet timeless tale of bravery, love and sorrow that, like the epics it borrows from, deserves to be re-read and re-told time and again.

If you like this, read: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, 2012, $22.20, Books Kinokuniya), the 2012 Orange Prize Fiction winner which re-tells the epic tale of Achilles the Greek demi-god and his relationship with the mortal prince Patroclus in the time of the Trojan War.

Lee Jian Xuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline '(No headline) - FEB07D'. Print Edition | Subscribe