All spit and polish: A tribute to Carl Muller

They entertained many, but upset a few. That’s how C. A. Gunawardena described the novels of Carl Muller in his Encyclopaedia of Sri Lanka. In one sense contradictory, in another they were not quite so; if they were, they reflected the contradictions and paradoxes of not just the writer, but also the community he was writing about. Muller, who died last week, may or may not have liked that categorisation. The truth of the matter is that writers like him tend to defy categorisation. And yet, he was quite possibly the most exuberant, unapologetic, and un-self-censoring writer in English Sri Lanka produced. That’s not a compliment. It’s the truth.

Very few writers move outside the communities they are born to. But then communities, like civilisations, tend to be amorphous; there are subcultures within cultures, subgroups within groups. Carl Muller wrote about one such subculture. In 1993 when The Jam Fruit Tree, the first of his long acclaimed trilogy that continued with Yakada Yaka (1994) and Once Upon a Tender Time (1995), came out, it had been 10 years since that other renowned Burgher writer, Michael Ondaatje, had published Running in the Family. No two books written on the same community could have been more different. Ondaadje’s pre-Anil’s Ghost apolitical saga of a Burgher family contained the gentleness of a Beethoven symphony: all polish, no spit. Muller’s novel, on the other hand, was full of sensuousness and violence, like one of Mozart’s more idiosyncratic sonatas: all spit and polish.

In his trilogy and in some of the novels that followed, Muller relies on a narrator whose voice gets drowned in a symphony, one could say cacophony, of a hundred other voices. The result is a vibrant, sensuous blend of speech, monologue, and reportage that can only be described as polyphonic (or in his own words, “faction”).

Critics called him an entertainer, a teller of tales lacking serious literary distinction, because of this. I think they were right, but to a point only: while Muller’s von Bloss trilogy is certainly no Wickramasinghe-ist Koggala trilogy, there are flashes of sustained playful rhetorical conceits which take it beyond the category of popular fiction. What sets this trilogy apart from the rest is its unflinching realism: especially in his depictions of personal relations, Muller does not shy away from the grotesque and the graphic. Even sex — that much misused theme in fiction and indeed art — becomes in his hands more than a mere titillating end in itself.

I have just contrasted the von Bloss trilogy with Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala trilogy, but this is not a contrast born of the differences between the communities their writers came from. Muller wrote about Burghers, yes, yet he wasn’t the first or even last to write about them.

Most novelists and poets from minority groups dwell on separation. Jean Arasanayagam, who passed away five months ago, wrote of estrangement, and before her Anne Ranasinghe, who passed away three years ago, pondered on a paradox unique to her: “though related only by marriage” to a majority, she had to compound this with the trauma of being part of a community which had been made to suffer elsewhere, as a minority. Jean’s dilemma was more personal: she married into a community that was as much a minority as hers, yet this could not prevent her from meeting disapproval from her in-laws. When July 1983 came, both responded in much the same way: they turned to and sought solace in memory. It wasn’t easy, but for them it was the only way.

Muller’s response to his identity, and his consciousness of its place in a society that had once accorded his community with privilege, was different. If he didn’t write nostalgically about it, he nevertheless celebrated it frankly, openly, jubilantly. There are enough and more instances in his trilogy where he reflects on the paradox of being a Burgher: “not quite like them, and not quite like them either” as a friend of mine put it some time ago. “Them”, of course, is the native and the European.

Unlike Anne and Jean, moreover, Muller came from a less diverse background where interracial marriage was frowned upon and where domesticity was strictly “for our kind” only. When the Sinhala Buddhist Richard Colontota proposes to the Burgher Catholic Anna von Bloss in The Jam Fruit Tree, for instance, he suggests that after they marry “you go to your church and I will go to temple, and you hang your holy pictures in the house, never mind.” And yet despite this Anna is worried: “You’re mad, aney. Papa will kill for sure. You can become Catholic, no?” Colontota’s response is as poignant, almost a funny understatement: “I thought of that… but then my people kill me.”

It was, put simply, a minority within a minority, a subculture alienated from the larger culture that was also linked and bonded to it. He didn’t write explicitly of this paradox for the simple reason that in terms of forms of speech, conversation, mannerisms, customs, and habits, the Burghers of his novels become a category unto themselves on their own.

There’s no sure way of telling whether Muller’s tongue-twisting Sri Lankan Burgher dialect (a patois, refashioned, pidgin-ised Burgher speech) is authentic, but in the end its function is to make its speakers as unique as what and the way they speak. It’s a working class Europeanised population, anti-establishment yet conformist, that we see here. This frank, less than flattering representation of a group within a group was, not surprisingly, rooted in the author’s past as well.

Muller was the eldest of 13 children, by all accounts the most rebellious of them. There’s a short story of his titled “God’s Child” which tells about the youngest of two siblings who refuses to be intimidated by his father and tells him only God can punish him, only to be smacked and slapped and told that God gave his parents the authority to bring him up. When the child goes to church and asks the priest to resolve this dilemma — “Judge not,” said the Lord… “vengeance is mine,” said the Lord — the latter, sensing the theological trap he’s about to fall into, tells the child that as a child of God he should forgive his parents who may or may not have been right in rebuking and chastising him. When the boy returns home, to be smacked and slapped by his mother, he tells her that he forgives them, only to be smacked and slapped again and to realise that he can’t reconcile “his parents, his home, the church, and God.” That could have come right out of Muller’s childhood, during which, as he would remember much later, “I never felt as though I belonged at home.”

Home for Muller was anywhere but home: he served in the navy, was stranded in Sri Lanka after his parents and siblings left for England, moved on to journalism, worked in advertising, and after Penguin rejected a manuscript of his and asked for “something like Michael Ondaatje”, “came up” with the von Bloss saga. That, however, wasn’t his only masterpiece: he followed it up with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery and The Python of Pura Malai and Other Stories, both published in 1995, the same year he wrote and published Colombo: A Novel.

The latter has Muller at probably his most cryptic. Typically for Muller, the Colombo he prefers to write about is its underbelly: he explores the world of sexual deviants, rapists, paedophiles, drug dealers, and politicians, and interweaves them all with sketches from history building up to “this story of a city which began 500 years before his [Muller’s] birth.” More so than his fiction, interestingly, in Colombo there are no real heroes: even the victims, be they insurrectionists or a docile, smiling Chinese restaurant owner arrested for transporting cats in his car, have their shady pasts.

There were other novels, short stories, essays and sketches. Until the end, Muller was busy planning more and more literary endeavours. His prodigious output was matched only by his sheer range of experience and interests: even a cursory reading of Colombo will reveal the man’s breathtaking eclecticism.

If he wasn’t quite the polymath there, he was certainly a non-scholarly writer who made up for his lack of formal education (he was sent to three schools, including Royal and St Peter’s, but left nothing remarkable to remember them with; the fact that neither of the latter two mourned his death as past pupils are mourned is, in that sense, telling) by reading everything that came his way. In an interview published 12 years ago, this man who wrote with a kind of unsophisticated grace one hardly comes across English writing in Sri Lanka spoke of how he was kicked from all three schools after refusing to bend down to authority, adding that he still learnt to read. “It’s the one thing I insisted on my children,” he said. It was probably the only real thing he insisted on himself too.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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