Of an­cient kings and po­ets

A poly­glot defty wields lan­guage and trans­la­tion to cre­ate a char­ac­ter who in­cites re­bel­lion through po­etry.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By LEE JIAN XUAN

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, Riv er OfInk, a his­tor­i­cal novel set in 13th- cen­tury Sri Lanka, made its de­but last month to good re­views in no less than The Fina ncia l Tim es 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 famed Univer­sity of East Anglia.

Lan­guages play a big part in Riv er OfInk. Its story re­volves around 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 Sla ying Of Shishupa l, into Tamil. The epic chron­i­cles how Lord Kr­ishna, af­ter be­ing in­sulted by the evil king Shishu­pal, be­heads the lat­ter. Magha wants the clas­sic trans­lated into Tamil, which is spo­ken in Sri Lanka, to ex­pose the bar­baric na­tives to the civil­is­ing forces of art.

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

Cooper says in a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view: “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 N or­wich in Bri­tain. 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.

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

His mas­tery of Ger­man came in handy for the story of Asanka – the only non- Tamil trans­la­tion of The Sla ying OfShishupa l he could find was in Ger­man, so he trans­lated the work into English him­self.

On his blog, which is called “What A Lot Of Birds”, Cooper calls The Sla ying OfShishupa l 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 the 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 also par­tially in­spired by a year spent teach­ing English in Sri Lanka, 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 13th- cen­tury 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 ( Riv er OfInk) can one day be trans­lated into Sin­hala and Tamil so peo­ple can read it in the lan­guage of the coun­try it’s set in.” – Straits Times/ Asia N ews N et­work

Apart from English, Cooper is also flu­ent in French, Ger­man and Sin­hala – lan­guage and trans­la­tion play a big part in his de­but novel. — Photo: what­alotof­birds. word­press. com.

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