Justin needs to spend three consecutive months in his deceased father’s estate on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus — where he must solve a riddle to claim an extravagant inheritance, rich with history — and gold.
Unexpected help comes from a woman named Zoe who may hold a clue to Justin’s own mysterious past — though neither of them fully know the stakes of her involvement. Unbeknownst to the two lovers, someone else is trying to solve the riddle for his own benefit.
In an epic story spanning the ages from the time of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade, to modern day Cyprus, reincarnation, history, love, and mystery collide.
The English Scholar’s Ring has been LISTED for the EUROPEAN BOOK PRIZE 2016
By Dr. Maria Hadjipolycarpou, Columbia University
Postcolonial authors who write in English, such as, V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad), Salman Rushdie (India), Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), some of whom are Nobel laureates, gained the attention of global audiences by exposing the dark side of their nation’s colonial history—the exploitation of natural resources, the oppression and enslavement of the people, including indentured labor and forced migration. But most importantly they became known for examining the complex problems about their national history and identity, which their respective nations faced after independence. Cypriot writers, or writers of Cypriot descent who live abroad, have yet to see their work acknowledged by the global literary world. There are various reasons for this situation, but the most likely explanation is that Cypriot scholars, novelists and poets usually write in either Greek or Turkish.
But the fact that Lina Ellina’s novel, The English Scholar’s Ring, is written in English is, the least significant reason it receives attention in the outside world in general and in postcolonial studies in particular.
Cyprus remains to this day a partitioned state, an aftereffect of British colonialism and of the nationalistic struggle between Turkish and Greek Cypriots that followed. British colonialism in Cyprus (1878-1960) and its legacy influenced the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in ways both seen and unseen. In this context I will point out that the constitution mandated that the population be divided into Greek Cypriots who represented the Christian majority and the Turkish Cypriots who represented the Muslim minority. This distinction came to represent two opposing nationalisms on the island and over time this become increasingly significant politically.
In the words of Edward Said, who pioneered the study of colonialism through the study of literature, “The western gaze remain[ed] blinded to other histories and cultures or aspirations” (Said 1994, xviii). Colonizers often depicted their colonial subjects as existing “outside of history” in societies unable to progress without the assistance of those already “civilized,” the Europeans.
In the 19th century, for example, Western travelers either dismissed native Cypriots as menial laborers or uncivilized peasants (some of whom were acknowledged as paying taxes to their colonial overlords). The British historian William Hepworth Dixon (1821-1879) described the Cypriots as “creatures of the lower types, clinging to life for life’s own sake … holding on by simple animal tenacity through tempests which have wrecked the nobler of races” (Dixon 1879, 28).
These depictions represented the broader context within which Western colonials viewed the people in their colonies. As Said wrote, the Westerners, “seem[ed] at liberty to visit their fantasies and philanthropies upon a mind-deadened Third World” (Said 1994, xix).
Sir George Hill (1867–1948), the first historiographer of modern Cyprus wrote:
Cyprus has had no continuous history of its own . . . . [Its history is chiefly a] reflection from the activities of great powers which from age to age have found it necessary to deal with it on their way to some more important objective [elsewhere]. (Hill 1940, iv)
Having borne witness to layers upon layers of imperial exchanges, the Cypriot population has felt almost like guests in the historical narrative of their own nation. Oftentimes echoing aspects of the colonial past, the national Cypriot historiography has been absorbed, added onto or, even worse, enmeshed in the history of various empires.
As a country with no history of its own, Cyprus became a tabula rasa so to speak, a void, onto which the western imagination projected its own imaginary: of the island as a crossroad between East and West, strategically located on ancient trade routes in the Mediterranean sea.
With her novel, The English Scholar’s Ring, Lina Ellina revisits Cyprus in the 12th century, during the short period (May and June of 1191) during which Richard I of England stopped in Limassol, on the southeast cost of Cyprus, on his way to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Ellina adopts the historical lens of the middle ages to point out similarities between Cyprus and Jerusalem, as both are emblematic buffer-zones between East and West. Unearthing the historical experience of empire, Ellina invites the reader to contemplate the relationship between the two countries in an attempt to discover what the peoples of England and Cyprus, who partake in hegemonic environments, share as human beings. In so doing she debunks the imaginaries, and re-negotiates history from the perspective of those who lived through it, outsiders and insiders, English and Cypriots alike. In the place of history from the perspective of empire, she presents history from the point of view of the local people suffering under the oppression of rulers, both domestic and foreign.
As she de-emphasizes the West’s “fantasies and philanthropies” about Cyprus and Jerusalem on the one hand and England, as a symbol of empire, on the other, Ellina explores the uncomfortable truce between conqueror and conquered, in the form of a romance between an English scholar, Alan, who accompanies the fleet of Richard I, and a Cypriot woman, Irene. The two share similar aspirations. They love knowledge. They are free spirited idealists who oppose war. They believe that life (and their lives in particular) should be decided by them and not their cultures and be based on the freedom of choice. Ellina’s novel acknowledges that historical realities and long-standing animosities are not irrelevant to her story. But she also makes clear that if we understand history as being a fixed chronology and an unbreakable link with the past, it becomes burdensome, inescapable, nightmarish.
As a way of providing continuity between past and present, Ellina creates a modern-day interlocutor for Alan in the form of Tom Scott, a 21st-century archaeologist who leads an expedition in Cyprus. By moving back and forth between 1191 and 2010 Ellina escapes from a stagnant textbook version of medieval times. She demythologizes the past, introduces everyday stories and details that transform it into an allegory about the human condition and brings it to life, thus broadening our scope about what history really is. As the story unfolds, the reader becomes an active participant, absorbed in the process of historical exploration and the making of historical connections.
After his death we learn that, Tom Scott wrote a will naming his son, Justin, and his step-daughter, Zoe, as beneficiaries. But before receiving their inheritance Justin and Zoe must solve Tom’s riddle–“Traders sat in its shade, hence the bridge name”–which will lead them to a discovery about Tom’s previous life and the connection between him and Justin and Zoe to Alan and Irene. The riddle drives Justin’s and Zoe’s romance who fall in love. Through this plot development the novel makes an intervention. It encourages the reader to exit his/her passive role and become a detective and help to solve the riddle. By engaging in this process, the reader simultaneously joins the quest and becomes a link connecting the 12th century and the 21st.
Ellina’s novel transforms history into a living space which is not fixed but fluid and open to negotiation, a place where relationships can cross the boundaries of time, culture, gender and class. Her history-as-novel preserves poetic and literary characteristics as integral to the historical process. And even though it is seemingly driven by men, the narrative is pushed forward by women. Irene, a feminist avant la lettre, is a woman with an inquisitive mind, who recognizes that marriage may put an end to her fascination with learning. And Zoe, who leaves Cyprus for New York to become a photographer does not necessarily wish to have a family. Her work fulfills her.
Ellina’s novel is written from the perspective of those who had not been allowed a share in their own nation’s history. Surely the riddle in The English Scholar’s Ring has many symbolic meanings—and one of them must be that, in order to take part in the narratives of their national lives and unlock the riddles of their history, they must look to their own personal histories which are inextricably linked to the narrative of the history of their country.
Dr. Maria Hadjipolycarpou, Columbia University
New York, 2014