In the beginning, the elders told him, there was neither light nor darkness, because in the beginning nothing existed. But then, for reasons that were unclear, the Holy Source had awakened like a person from sleep. When the Holy Source awoke he first opened his eyes and in that instant light was created. After the Holy Source opened his eyes, he yawned, and in that instant air was created. After the Holy Source yawned he looked around, saw that he was alone, and shed a tear of sadness, and in that instant water was created. Then the Holy Source thought to himself, I won’t be sad. I will play with what I have created. So the holy Source began to play with light and air and water and in this way he created the world.
The Arayana are an indigenous people descended from an ancient empire living contentedly in the remote mountain forests. With scant knowledge of the outside modernising world they cling to their ancestral traditions and seek to pass on the wisdom of their elders undisturbed. Before the Dawn is their story, a story of drama, intrigue, foreboding, and the painful invasion of a group consciousness, beautifully rendered by landscape painter Rupert Copping. Although told entirely from their point of view this is no patronising post-colonial ‘innocence to experience’ yarn nor is their world an idyllic Eden in some virginal state before the Fall. Copping explores the complexities of tribal life through four main characters; a chief, his wife, his mistress, and a disgraced elder. Much of what they seek to protect seems no less dark and cruel than the ways of the outside world – but it is their sphere. The forces that swirl around and seep into their isolated enclave are complicated and circuitous, pitting native, invader, revolutionary and reactionary against each other.
The story begins with a ritual birth of a new elder, from the cave of shadows and guessed impressions to immediate ‘enlightenment’ under the full revealing sun of the first day. What for centuries has been a pure and altruistic beginning under the guidance of the ‘Holy Source’ now becomes questionable – a blighted moment with fresh hints of cruelty. Copping centres himself at this point where germination somehow sowed the first seeds of decay and the resulting sense of violation and bewilderment that now creeps into various characters in the isolated mountainous village. His voice is one of an innocent storyteller, self-contained and direct, but like his characters trying to stave off the final erosion of the mythos. And in that sense he tells the story of all indigenous peoples, all tribes on the cusp of modern infiltration and defilement, leaving us with the final question of how cultural heritage and spiritual identity can thrive in an altered landscape – and indeed, if it should.
As we live in a time where ‘radiant wars,’ the clash of colours, the homogenisation of cultures and the cooption of religious impulses are still upon us, Before the Dawn is a relevant and imbibing novel for all of us. Although a first time novelist, Rupert Copping ably fills his canvas with bold and telling strokes, all the while guided by memories of being in and around the people of which he writes, and on the ancient land on which they still work and thrive. Of his story he explains:
I see it as a novel that exists on a number of different levels. Above all I wanted to tell a good story. Beyond this it is about the destruction of the environment and the threat to indigenous cultures, something which oddly has become ever more relevant as the years have passed. But also the novel is about the perils of mysticism, the right to self-expression, and the search for artistic truth.
Before the Dawn, with its cover featuring a painting by the author, is now available from various retail outlets such as Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or direct from the Skylight Press website.