Just ask Scheherazade: it’s a dangerous business being bard to a king.
Asanka the poet has had it easy: in good with the ruler, he’s parlayed a facility with language—Sanskrit in particular—into a career celebrating the splendors of Sri Lanka. He has some money tucked aside, along with a compliant and pliant mistress, and he gets to write pretty much what he wants to. All that comes crashing down in the first few pages of British writer Cooper’s debut novel when the old king has an exceedingly bad day at the hands of a usurper. Magha, the new king, has his good points, but there’s a bit of Joe Stalin to him, occasioning the need to put out some good press and burn the books that don’t quite deliver the message he’s after. But, not knowing a word of Sanskrit himself, how can Magha be sure Asanka is saying the things he wants to convey to his much-put-upon subjects? There’s the rub, and there’s the seed of some palace intrigues, and the old vexing question arises from it of how a minor, apparently amoral bureaucrat is to survive with something of his honor intact when doing the service of the master. Cooper strives for literary effect at times, while at others he is a bit too modern-chatty (“After all, at least a Prince has cushions to sit on and does no work, but still, I was so bored”). The result is a Life of Pi–ish mélange of mixed diction and sometimes-clumsy Orientalizing (“it surprised me that his voice was as smooth as coconut water”). To his credit, though, Cooper does a nice job of imaging medieval Sri Lanka and, by way of his narrator, imparts some welcome notes on Sanskrit poetics along the way: “It’s the emotion of a poem that swallows up all smaller, more delicate feelings, that stands alone and cannot be broken down.”
Ambitious and interesting. Cooper’s book has its merits, but read Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights for more assured storytelling.