Monday, January 4, 2016

River of Ink

Title:  River of Ink
Author:  Paul M. M. Cooper
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1632860708 / 978-1632860705

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Do you remember the mynah birds that used to live in the courtyard outside your room?"

Favorite Quote:  "I began to wonder whether the stories that play through life are ever finished. Whether the neat happy endings ... are ... a fantasy."

River of Ink is a story about two heroes - one unwitting, unplanned, but very public; the other quiet, deliberate and behind the scenes. It is a story of a vicious civil war and of the pen being mightier than the sword. River of Ink is a story of mythology.

Asanka is a poet to kings in thirteenth century Sri Lanka. He is married, but his true love is a servant girl Sarasi. Life is good. A life of ease at the palace. The company of a king. A position of respect at the court. A love.

War comes to Lanka in the form of Kalinga Magha. His ruthless ways and formidable army overthrow the king, and a new regime is born. Many die, and many flee. Asanka remains and becomes part of the new court.

The invaders speak Sanskrit while the people of Lanka speaks Tamil. Asanka, with his knowledge of both, is tasked with translating a Sanskrit epic into Tamil as Magha seeks to bring his message to his new kingdom. Asanka's life becomes tied to the translation in more ways than even he can see, and its effects reach further than he could ever imagine.

This story follows so many different layers - Asanka and his personal concerns; the state of Lanka under Magha's vicious rule; and the mythology of the Shishupala Vadha, the epic works Asanka translates. The layers of course spill over into each other. Asanka finds that in translating, an appropriately placed word here and a changed word there can infuse a whole new meaning into a text. Only a few scholars know both languages so who would know? His private rebellion reaches into the Lanka and becomes the heart of a nation, giving others courage. An unknown writer - unidentified and secret - courageously brings to Asanka stories of good and evil from the Shishupala Vadha. These words become Asanka's motivation for further work on his translation. The cycle continues to a dramatic conclusion and revelation, with the fate of a nation in the balance.

River of Ink does a beautiful job of depicting its environment and setting. It is a very visual book - from its unfortunate descriptions of executions, to the descriptions of streets and villages of Lanka, and to the grand visions of gods, humans, and battles.

The characterization in the book is a little less developed. The three main characters are Asanka, Sarasi, and Magha. The story is told in the form a monologue of sorts with Asanka addressing Sarasi years after the events depicted. The narrative perspective works for the most part, but the book only depicts only Asanka's thoughts and emotions. I find Sarasi and Magha equally if not more interesting, and wish to hear the story from their perspective. Their story remains untold.

I don't know much about Sri Lanka, its history, or its mythology. The only related book I have read recently is Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. That book is also about civil war in Sri Lanka but much more recently. This book through its imagery brings to life not only war but also a culture rich in the arts and in stories. That richness is the lasting impression of River of Ink.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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