Review: River of Ink (Paul Cooper) and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (Dominic Smith)







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“You can build a fence around the country, but you can’t build a fence around the mouth” – Sinhala proverb (River of Ink)


“A girl of your position should never have been writing; a man of my position should never have been teaching you”, says Asanka to his muse, the Tamilian servant-girl, Sarasi. King Parakrama, of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, is waiting for Magha from Kalinga to lay siege on his kingdom. And all he could think of was to summon his poet, Asanka, and to lay open the giant doors to his palace, signalling his disinclination towards a violent fight with the mighty Magha.

“A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice...” – At the Edge of a Wood (1636), Sara de Vos (1607-16xx)

“The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the martial bed during a charity dinner for orphans. This is how Marty de Groot will tell the story in the years ahead, how he’ll spin it for the partners at the law firm and quip it to comedic life at dinner parties and over drinks at the Racquet Club”. Marty de Groot – that name should register easily, for it belongs to the rich, suave owner of At the Edge of a Wood, the only surviving painting of Sara de Vos, the first woman to be admitted, in 1631, as a master to the Guild of St. Luke in Holland. He just “turned forty in the spring, a capstone to his stalled-out career and their inability to bring children into the world. It occurs to him that he’d started everything late – law school, a career, the first overtures towards a family”.

“My name is Magha, the youngest prince of the Kalinga line, and, from today, ruler over this island”, a just yet simple way to the path to power. Not long after taking the throne, Magha calls Asanka to his palace and makes him promise to translate Shishupala Vadha, a Sanskrit epic by the poet Magha of the court of King Varmalata in Gujarat, India. Magha, the ruler, doesn’t know Sanskrit, but only Tamil and Kalinga, the language of his forefathers. A king with an artistic bent, and who wants to go down in history as somebody who gifted his people an epic in their own language. “You will be my royal translator. You will translate the Shishupala Vadha into Tamil in my name, so that I can give it to the people of this land, this bud I’m here to bloom”. A poet of Magha's stature would know better than to translate an epic from Sanskrit and distort it in Tamil. "What about the tortuous verses in which each line is a palindrome? What about the verses that can be rearranged into the shape of a sword, a drum, a jagged crack of lighting, and contain different hidden messages? What about the verse written in the form of a wheel, with 'This is the Shishupala Vadha, a poem by Magha' hidden among the spokes?".

Eleanor Shipley, an art historian, is approached by a dealer to copy Edge, and she would indeed be paid handsomely but without getting to know the secrets. “The seventeenth-century Dutch built their canvases the way they built their ships – one carefully engineered step at a time. The sizing, grounding, sketching, dead coloring, working up, and glazing. The badger brush to smooth layers and blend forms. Some of them waited a year for the oils to dry and then applied a resin varnish. Obscure problems for the Dutch painter became her own – how to produce stable oranges and greens, how to approximate purple by glazing blue over a reddish under painting. What she didn’t know about Sara de Vos’s technique she would invent based on what she knew of her Dutch contemporaries”.

The lingual and cultural tensions between the Sinhala and Tamils evident in everyday life, “I was Sinhala, you were Tamil. The Sinhala men in the bathhouses may have insulted me in my absence, the Tamil women may have murmured that you would one day give birth to a dog or a monkey – but Magha, the Aryan from the north, didn’t even seem to notice the difference”. But such tensions appear not just between the Sinhalese and Tamils, but even for Asanka’s poetic mind, when he likens ‘Maharaja’, a foreign word for addressing Magha the king, to rancid curd. We liken those who speak as us to our brethren half, and to monstrous selves when they don’t, “She (queen Dayani, deposed King’s wife) may have heard Sinhala folk rhymes as a child, but on the throne neither Queen Dayani nor King Parakrama had ever concerned themselves with the poetry of the common languages, the poems written in the voices of the common people. Like most people in Lanka, when the King and Queen weren’t reading the scriptures of the Buddha, they looked across the sea to the epic poems of the north: to the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, to the love poetry and drama of Bharavi and Kalidasa”.

And then she started, well, painting. “She peeled back at the antique canvas with diluted solvents, working in small circles, one inch at a time. She saved the old varnish as she stripped it off, squeezing the cotton swabs into a mason jar. To the naked canvas, she applied a thin coat of fresh ground but retained the surface signature of the original. Next, she sketched with pale chalk before dead coloring with raw umber mixed with black. The actual painting was slow and painstaking – a week on the woods, a week on the sky, two weeks on the frozen river and ice skaters. Each passage had its own technical puzzles. The bright yellows flecked into the scarves of the ice skaters were oddly textured and she eventually decided on mixing a little sand into chrome yellow. After the transparent glazes, she bleached the painting under an ultraviolet light for a week and cured it for a month in the furnace room below the basement stairs of her building. She worked a spider web of cracks into the canvas from behind, using a soft rubber ball. She used a spray gun to mist the picture with the antique varnish she’d set aside. A favourite dealer trick was to pass an ultraviolet light over a canvas, causing the oxidation in the old varnish to fluoresce. That ghostly blue-white apparition was a direct product of age”.

He may be feeble, but he took his revenge in his similes, and started making fun of Magha’s bushy eyebrows. And the public readings of his poems soon became thunderous acts of valiant rebellion. However, crude translations started to appear at his doorstep. These were cruder, coarser, and the ink was of a kind he never had seen or smelled. Pushpakumara, the master ink maker, recognized it, “the ink is of type I’ve only ever seen on the mainland: burnt bone, shellac resin and oil. It spoils on the ships, with the salt and the motion of the waves. Once it’s unloaded from the boat, it has to be stored for years before the crystals properly dissolve and it’s usable again. That’s why you don’t see it over here. It’s a very fine ink”. The wordy guffaws and pointed sarcasm didn’t take long for a rebel leader to bring down Magha, but not before Asanka discovered that the translations which he kept receiving were from Sarasi, and he lost her forever in the battle for supremacy between the right and the wrong. He gained freedom but lost his love.

In translating a poem composed of multiple palindromic verses, he made his life a palindrome composed of love and sadness.

Meanwhile, Sara herself was struggling in the 1600s when her only daughter died and her husband Barent disappears somewhere, rather to nowhere, leaving her behind. When Eleanor, in the early 2000s, discovers that the Museum where she works in Sydney is planning to hold an exhibition of Edge, and surprisingly has got two responses for their advertisement, she wonders if this would bring a final end to the travails of her life which she tried hard to forget and remove layer by layer. The copy and the original both are being flown into her city, into her museum, into her life.

But all that happened much, much later. Marty tracked Eleanor to quench his vengeful desires and, in a moment of weakness of smitten love, gives in to her, but soon realizes his folly and escapes into obscurity. Like Barent, he leaves her behind to mourn. But is Edge the last painting of Sara? Would Marty fall down to his knees in Sydney? And the other original coming in from Netherlands – what’s its story? Beautifully written, with prose fragile as cat’s sleep, this is a novel which you shouldn’t miss.


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