The first thing that has to be said is that I know next to nothing about Sri Lankan history, and the little that I do know is mainly derived from the reading of novels such as Gillian Slovo’s “Black Orchid”. This ignorance, however, is no barrier to the enjoyment of this book. Paul M. M. Cooper has produced a book that is, on so many levels, just beautiful.
The story begins with the invasion of Sri Lanka by Kalinga Magha and his armies in the 13th century (Common Era). This makes him a contemporary of King John, and the events take place at the same time as the massacres of the Cathars by King Louis VIII of France. I mention this so that the story can be placed in its historical context, and I admit that I had to resort to an online encyclopaedia to check my facts. [And here, I would like to thank my local library for providing this online access free of charge]. King Parakrama decides that he cannot defend his capital, Polonnaruwa, against the invader and orders that all the gates of the city are left open. Thus, the king effectively condemns himself to an atrocious, barbarous death at the hands of the invader. The royal poet, Asanka, is one of this who is forced to witness this, and it is the event that defines his dharma, and therefore the fate of the country.
Dharma, by the way, is very important to King Magha. It is, I suppose, the equivalent of fate, of what is predestined for you, of what you cannot and should not try to avoid. It is what drives him. It is why he brutally punishes people who do not understand their dharma. King Parakrama, for instance, is brutally murdered because he did not understand that his dharma, as understood by Magha, was to fight to the death. King Magha does not understand that this kind of dharma is not really a concept in Buddhism. [Dharma in Buddhism is better described as the cosmic order, as far as I understand it, which is limited].
King Magha has a problem. He wishes to destroy Buddhism, and to reintroduce Hinduism to Sri Lanka. And so he sets about the destruction of temples and shrines, the brutal murder of monks and nuns. But he fails to capture the Buddha’s tooth, which is removed by some monks fleeing to the south of the island and safety. So Magha has the idea of translating the Shishupala Vadha into Tamil, and for that he needs the royal poet, Asanka.
How Asanka deals with this situation, and how he is encouraged to do so by his lover, the kitchen maid, Sarasi, is the very heart of this book. To tell you any more would be a serious disservice, as it would spoil the flow of the story. And that would spoil one of the things that make this book such a joy to read.
Paul M. M. Cooper has an extraordinary ability to choose exactly the right word at the precise moment it is required to take the story forward. He uses a poet’s skill and precision in telling this story of a poet, caught up in the horror of an invasion that seeks to impose a physical and cultural repression. This is a beautiful book, beautifully written.. Cooper has the sensitivity to bring us the stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and, of course, the Shishupala Vadha, and to present them to western readers in a way that makes us grasp the mythology. These are the stories that inform everything that Asanka has to deal with, everything that Sarasi helps him to understand.
Magha’s invasion was a terrible period of Sri Lankan history. Cooper makes us understand the emotions of that time, through the sheer power and beauty of language, from spellbinding storytelling, through his understanding of the human condition. This is a remarkable book.
This book is also remarkable in another way. It is beautifully produced. It is a joy to handle the paper. The Garamond typeface is truly lovely. Given that one of the themes of the story is the sheer importance of the beauty of books, it would have been very disappointing if the publishers had not taken care with this book. It is to the credit of Bloomsbury Circus that they have produced an artefact that is a joy to look at,and to handle.
I doubt that anyone will regret buying this book.