His new book 'Spit and Polish' is out now.
Book review - Children of the Lion by Carl Muller. Reviewed by John Harris
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius describes the range of theatrical genres available from the troupe that comes to perform at the royal court as including "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical tragical-comical-historical pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited."
The range of literary devices at Carl Muller's disposal in his recent novel Children of the Lion is no less impressive. Myth, fact and fantasy are juggled with astounding ease as Muller's substantial 984-page work traces the early history of Sri Lanka, beginning with its first Indian conquerors, the disgraced band of 700 Sihapurans who established the Sinhalese dynasty on the island under the leadership of Vijaya in 483 B.C. The tale winds its way through the squabbling and political fragmentation of his descendants until the island was reunified under Duttha Gamini several hundred years later. Along the way Muller recreates in vivid detail the characters and episodes that shaped the island's early history, prominent among which was the coming of Buddhism to the island from the kingdom of Asoka in 247 B.C during the reign of Tissa.
The book's preamble makes the claim that Muller's work gives "flesh and blood to the dry bones of history." No one can doubt the meticulousness of Muller's research - indeed the book includes 50 pages of footnotes and bibliography to substantiate his version of events. It is based heavily upon the Mahavamsa - Sri Lanka's founding epic. But the author also calls into play a bewildering array of other sources, from all academic disciplines. All cultures and all ages. If you want to know of the ancient Buddhist classifications for erotic love, where to find the world's oldest tree, Sri Lankan geotectonic history, or the process for trapping an elephant look no further.
It is this facet which poses one of the book's very few problems to its lay reader. Muller at times seems so intent on displaying his vast researching prowess that the reader is distracted from the book's fictional flow. Muller usually manages to integrate the book's fictional and historical passages with impressive ease. Occasionally, however, the historical passages read more like a list of references that the author feels compelled to include than he had intended. Similarly, though by no means assuming a prior expertise in Sri Lankan history, the immense presence of historical cross-referencing means that the book would take on an added resonance for the reader with a familiarity with its concerns.
But the book's primary achievement is not its historical analysis but its considerable fictional brilliance. Muller's talent lies in his interweaving of fact, fiction and myth into a compulsively readable, rich literary tapestry. Fact and fiction have a curious interaction throughout the book. The dubious line between the two is developed in the book's opening passage, where the reader is simply told that "the lion crouched in the sky." We then read that the lion in fact refers to a cloud in the form of a lion. But as the eyes that spotted the cloud turn earthward, they see a real lion wreaking havoc on a trail of caravans the real turned imaginary turns real once again. Muller has a keen sense of the balance required between fact and fiction, and the same page frequently houses bald historical fact harmoniously alongside fantastically imagined fiction.
This balance also enables Muller to enhance historical occurrences in delightful ways. Explaining, for example, the shrinking of Sri Lanka's land mass over the centuries, Muller relates that the gods punished the irrational wrath of a father by destroying eleven twelfths of the island with an irate typhoon. Similarly, he tells us of a king who installs a bell that can be rung by any of his subjects seeking justice, whether human, bird or cow.
Muller is captivated primarily by periods of turmoil and development, and not so much by years of smooth-running glory. The book's focus reflects this bias. The achievements of uncontested monarchs are covered with a historian's brevity whereas the intrigues and indecision of those less omnipotent are delved into with fictional flair. Muller's narrative voice manipulates the story with considerable effect.
Perhaps the most important presence of Muller's narrative voice appears when he deals with the Mahavamsa, on which his story is based. Though making extensive use of its passages, and following its story quite closely,Muller is simultaneously very aware of its limitations, and the need to embellish its version. At one point, he criticises the 'bald statements' of the Mahavamsa version, and at another warns us that "the picture presented by the ancient chroniclers must be viewed with care". Muller's intention is to create a more complete literary canvas than can be garnered from the versions of historical sources. Leading up to the book's final conflict, Muller quotes the four-line Mahavamsa version of events which he describes as a ' classic anticlimax.' He then goes on to develop the same event over twenty pages. Muller begins with a kernel of source material and develops it, using research and imagination, into a brilliant literary episode. This is Muller's strength, and it is this which rewards the reader willing to take on a literary creation of such epic dimensions. Another dimension which gives this ancient tale modern significance is that the Sri Lanka it describes was a diverse, assimilating place, where cultures encompassing a wide variety of languages, religions and beliefs strove to forge together a peaceful interactive existence. Over the course of time, "legend ,literature, myth and magic fused, grew and gave rise to widspread beliefs." Through all the years the book covers these attempts at cultural integration produced dramatic failures, resulting in 'a land where brother slays brother," but also registered noteworthy successes. In that capacity, this tale, and many other such tales, deserve a closer look. For, as the book wonders, "must there be turmoil and hatred in order that a land achieves distinction and character?
- The India Magazine of her people and culture
by Afdhel Aziz
Carl Muller is a very busy man indeed. Sri Lanka s premier man of letters is under contract to Penguin India to produce two books every year upto the year 2000. A stiff undertaking by any standards but one that he takes on with relish. This year sees the publication of Children of the Lion in July, an epic novel which does nothing less than rewrite the history of Sri Lanka for instance, did you know that the famed Elara was actually a Yemeni and not a Dravidian as is popularly thought? These and other astonishing nuggets are what Muller has patiently researched and will now display in the book and its planned sequels. For those of you who thought Muller was little more than a dirty old man whose stories involved drinking, fornicating and fighting, the book may come as a bit of a surprise. But for those who loved the stories of the Von Bloss family that he spun in such books as The Jam Fruit Tree , Yakkada Yakka and Once Upon a Tender Time , not to worry Spit and Polish , a book about the Von Blosses in the Navy is due in October as well to keep some of us entertained and some of us suitably outraged.
His house, just outside Kandy is comfortable but not opulent. A large mural of an Amazon rain forest decorates one wall painted surprisingly enough by Muller himself. It features exactly one hundred animals and I got bored with some of them so I painted the faces of politicians he says with an impish grin, pointing out a lemur and a tree sloth who do bear a striking resemblance to certain former members of the legislature. Muller s den is lined with books, books on medieval Sinhalese art, history, politics, Greek and Roman culture, architecture and also a good collection of little known works in English by Sri Lankan writers dating back over the last forty years. In the corner is a Canon word processor which looks like it dates back to the time Bill Gates was a glint in his daddy s eye. I m trying to raise some money so that I can buy a newer model and become more efficient, he says. Not that he wastes his time by dawdling away. He s up at around 3 or 4 in the morning writing, after which he tends his garden and his poultry (a good source of income, he says). He continues writing during the day, stopping to tutor the children of Kandy whether it s the kids of the neighbourhood or the sons and daughters of the cream of society, he makes no distinction. If they want help with their studies he gives it. It is just after the Sinhalese New Year and the continuous stream of visitors arriving with kavum, kokis and assorted sweetmeats bears testament to the respect he is afforded in the town. And he seems to be enjoying life thoroughly.
I have a damn good time, I lead a very happy life, I make my money the way I feel like it, for instance I edit a business newspaper for the Chamber of Commerce in Kandy, it s called the Business Voice . I also edit a children s newspaper the only English children s paper that comes out of Kandy, it s called the Beacon . The Business Voice from July, 2000 copies of it are going on Air Lanka flights all over the world, is one of the best edited business newspapers of this country, and I do it all alone. And the children s newspaper I edit is unique because it doesn t talk down to children in that condescending way most papers and pages do. He is also working on the history of Kandy, which he has decided to call Proud Heart . It is the heart of the country, it also has its own sense of pride as the last kingdom of the country. In fact, in my mind I have already decided how to start the book with the huge Buddha statue up on Bahirava Kanda and with it comes the legend of Bavandakanda the girl sacrificed to the demon etc. Kandy is a must I ve got to do it. Which is why I ve already assembled the reading I want. Sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan kingdom, Geoffrey Powell s Kandyan Wars . I ve taken in all the books I want, all the background that I want so that I don t make mistakes I can t afford to make mistakes when I m dealing with my country.
It all seems like very strait-laced stuff from a man who is better known for bawdy tales of licentiousness and depravation. But Muller, while not in the least apologetic about the subject matter he is infamous for, also wants to correct the misapprehension that he is merely a scribbler of scandals. These Burgher books didn t come out on my own will. I wrote to Penguin about a little book of short stories of animals that I had written. And Penguin writes back and says, Look thank you very much but we don t want it. Why don t you give us something like Michael Ondaatje . So it was Penguin that started this ball rolling.
So how does he handle the controversy? Listen, the truth of the books was that I celebrated the Burghers. I celebrated their weddings, their funerals, their Christmas feasts, everything. I wanted to show the life that was not being publicly shown to anybody; the real way the Burghers lived. The way they fornicated, the way they died. I did everything possible to show them that they were a unique culture, and people who could live together with everybody, which is why I said in The Jam Fruit Tree that while the other buggers are throwing bombs at each other, we Burghers are getting on without any problems. My life has been very crowded. These are all memories. Now what I m doing is drawing from life, I m drawing from experiences of my friends and all the people who knew me and they all have stories to tell. Sue me. No one has... yet. But if you want to sue me you have to have grounds. There are skeletons in every cupboard. It s not fair for me to rattle these skeletons about, but if they make a damn good story then why not?
We pause to have something to drink and he shows me some cushion covers that he sewed. That s right, cushion covers one s with palm trees and sunsets on them. Carl Muller is a man with strange angles to him. He has a wife and four kids who he loves dearly and he says that he writes because it is his duty to make sure they are financially stable when he dies. That s another thing, everyone thinks I am rolling in money. They don t realize the Government of India cuts thirty percent of my royalties in taxes for instance. Furthermore, they don t realize that I have not been a very healthy person I ingested some sulphur in my lungs and that still causes problems. And I am too old to get a job I think I must be the only person that you know of that lives full time by writing. I am writing all the time, hoping to do something with these books. Hoping that when Children of the Lion comes out in July as a Viking hardback, it s going to be good. Penguin is raving about it, they say that they are submitting it for the Commonwealth Writers prize. I m hoping to crack that it s a cheque for one and a half million rupees. And then what, I ask him, will you stop writing? He looks amazed for a moment, as if the thought had never occurred to him. No, I'll simply write more, he smiles.
The Sunday Times 08th, June 1996
Boxing with Muller
By Afdhel Aziz
Carl Muller is someone who has lived most of the life that he writes about - and dreams up the rest of it. He truly deserves the sobriquet of Sri Lanka's 'enfant terrible des lettres'. Though, come to think about it , 'enfant' isn't possibly the best word to describe someone who is his age - he's 62. Here he talks about the critics, his passions and his books. Minus some unprintable anecdotes, libellous slanderings and scandalous episodes from his chequered past.
How do you deal with your many critics?
Look at it this way. You write a book. Who is the critic you know, the qualified critic who can take your book and look at it and write either charitably or uncharitably about it ? Who has come through a school of criticism ? Who has got a diploma in literary criticism, right? When an author writes a book, invariably, the author sends a copy to the newspaper, who calls a sub-editor or reporter and says, " Here, I've got this book. Review it," and bang comes a review. Now there are all kinds of reviewers . There's one I know who is a staunch Buddhist and he can write about the subject as an authority . But if you give him "The Jam fruit Tree", he's going to damn it. For one thing, he couldn't relate to it. He doesn't know anything about it. He may not even know that side of life. He'll be shocked by it. He might even bang it on the editor's table and say, "This is a dirty book, I'm not going to write anything about it." Another thing, I don't see why they should try to destroy the younger writers.
If the younger writers see the older writers getting hammered like that they are scared to publish. They think the same fate awaits them. So critics have got to have a sense of reason in what they do. OK, you don't like me, come to my house and insult me. Send me a letterbomb. But don't take your anger out on what I write. I feel the anger comes out against me, not what I write.
What you're saying is that the best criticism comes from a layman?
The best criticism is the type of letters that come from the readers. They can say what they like. Now, I've had so many people who read 'The Jam Fruit Tree' They sent their letters through the editor. There were letters that damned me, that cursed me. One man even said I'm not even a Burgher - "with that name he must be some German".
That's OK. What I raised in my books was a bit of a hornet's nest which is why the newspapers got rather worried about what they should say about me and what they shouldn't. People talk about it, people shun me at parties. Oh that is Carl Muller - don't go and talk to him - you don't know what he'll say. I am what my books are. Now that can be a dangerous thing for an author, because people judge you by what you write. They don't see the fiction in it or the faction. They see you in it. Now that can be a problem, but I don't think Harold Robbins had that problem, neither did Hanif Kureshi - I just finished reading his "Black Album" - fantastic.
Now there's "A Nice Burgher Girl" by Jean Arasanayagam - would you agree that yours was an accurate portrayal of Burgher life, or was it only one specific part of Burgher life ?
I would say that by and large, what I wrote was a generally accurate idea of Burgher life - the middle class which is where most of the Burghers belong. You see there were very few who got into the upper crust. They got in by way of going to England and studying and becoming professionals. In the railway, there were the Burghers who just drove their locomotives up and down , drank, played cards, came home......went to bed- that's all they were worried about. When land was 25 Rupees a perch in Colombo, my father who was an engine driver never bought one perch of land, but he wanted a bottle of arrack every day on his engine. You see, so that realisation came only to a few who actually thought about a future in this country. They went up to a very high level of living.
There were Justices, Chief Justices, the Burghers have been in the top rung. Magistrates, famous Veterinary surgeons, doctors. My Uncle was a Harley Street specialist and a plastic surgeon.
Do you get positive feedback from Burghers ?
Yes I have, especially from Australia. I have someone who wrote to me today who said please sign all your books and send them to me, they will be kept as treasured possessions not only for my children, but also my grandchildren. There are people who love it and these are the hard working Australians , young boys and girls who have to start by carrying crates of apples and learn how to get on in that country the hard way - they don't forget . The others who went with black market money and got their funds into Australia and settled down the easy way - they forget. But they still write to their relatives and say send me some katta sambol , send me some ambul thiyal - they can't do without that.
They pose - OK you got money, you got wall to wall carpeting - but why don't you think about what you were, where you came from. If you came from a small suburban house in Dematagoda, why don't you say that instead of saying that you had dinner every night at the Intercontinental - this is what some of them say. And now when they come , they bring things for the poor beggars they left behind. Second hand clothes, the watches, the rubbish they pick up there, the t-shirts , visit Australia 1996 t-shirts,calenders on cloth, this is what they give.
But they don't give respect ?
They don't give respect . They think that they have done their duty. Oh we have helped that poor family who couldn't come to Australia, must be their blood . But as for me there is only thing which can be a redeeming feature. I have never left this place This is my home, this is where I will die. I have gone abroad and worked, but I did that so that my family could have a future . These roots are very strong - that is what some people do not understand. Oh , another Burgher bugger, drifting around, writing some muck , earning some money and living.
What's coming out next ?
Now there's another Von Bloss book coming out in October which takes the Von Blosses into the navy and it's got the whole history of the Pacific War, and it's quite a big book - say about 400 pages . They don't want me to forsake the Von Blosses. They say, now the readership want up because of this family. Keep the family going.
I can keep it going for a long, long time, because I'm writing from memory, I'm writing from my own experience. And I have friends who write to me and remind me, "Hey do you remember the day you hit that bottle man ? " And then I thought about it and said "Yes, that's what my father made me do. He was angry that I was a bit of a 'sothiya'. He was looking out of the window, shaving and said, "Here there's a bottle man going on the road, I don't like his face, son, go and hit him."
Now this bottle man was a huge man and I was a little guy of about fifteen, and I went and pulled his sarong down and when his bottle basket fell, I hit him, and my father applauded. Crazy, but that was the way my father was. Let me show you some work in progress - one is science fiction. It's called 'Exodus 2300' , about when the world ends and people have to migrate to another planet. That's finished. I've started a book about my seven years in the Middle East - Ashley Halpe was horrified - you're a Muslim you may be horrified too - but I was actually going to call it "Dollar-hu-Akbar" .
Then you'll have two ethnic groups after you …..and I think the Muslims can muster up better firepower.
(Bursts out laughing) Maybe , yes, maybe. But I am calling it 'The Jawbone of West Asia' , seven years of my life as a journalist. I went into Iran, at the time when the Shah was doing a bunk, I was at the Pahlavi prison when they were taking out all the guys who were put their by SAVAK. Fantastic stories. I just wrote to Andrew Kidd who is the editor of Penguin UK and he said send me the book. England loves books on the Middle East, so maybe I can have my first Penguin UK book by1999.
Then I have a sequel to "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery" and they are titling it "Carl Muller Still on the Way to the Cemetery" - I hope I don't die before that. Then "The Jawbone of West Asia" , and then a science fiction book 'Exodus 2300'. And then I have a book which is going to shock everyone. The title is "Nice Old Uncle Eustace". I'm talking about a sex talker, a man who is a child abuser and a molester. I have been talking to people who have these hang ups - what makes them do it ? For the last few days in Kandy I have been following a man who while he walks on the road, swings his hand out to touch a little girl. He's got something really wrong with him. I had another friend of mine, who travelled with me to Colombo by bus one day.
He was sitting by the window and he was counting one, two…….by the time we reached Gampaha he had reached two hundred and forty eight.
I said what the hell are you doing ? You know what he told me ? I have been counting all the schoolgirls on the road.
This is a very dark side of human nature that I want to bring out. I want to make Uncle Eustace the nice old uncle whom everybody trusts and who ravages anything he gets hold of. This is a book I have to write. I am making this a very deep psychological study of human nature. I was abused as a child. I was abused by my own uncle when I was just ten years old. I did not know …….this old man just got up from his bed and came over to my bed at night. What makes a man a child molester or an abuser ? What makes a man go ga ga when he sees a young girl of seven or eight years ? There is something wrong here.
Homeosexuality is something which has been known of in this country for generations. Why the prudery about it ? Why the screen ? It is by screening this for donkeys years that it has gone on rampantly without anybody checking it . It is only now that writers can write about it, and make it public, so people can become aware of the dangers their own sons and daughters face. Then is this wrong , the fact that I'm writing about it ?
Are we talking about the dangers caused by homesexuality or child abuse?
Homeosexuality is a part of it . There are the grown up men who can only have homesexual relations with little boys. Anybody their age does not appeal to them.
But homeosexual sex between consenting adults is OK ?
As long as it's that that's their business I don't see why not. After all , you have the yin and the yang , and if you want to have the yang and the yang , or the yin and the yin , let them do it. I know when I was in Thomas Cooks, I knew a couple of German lesbians having a good time in Polonnaruwa Resthouse. The housekeeper broke his leg - he put a ladder up to see what was going on in the room and he fell !! In 'A Funny Thing', I have one story of a German tourist who was so enamoured of an old coconut plucker who was old enough to be his father ……. So what causes these hang ups - and what the hell is wrong with good , honest sex ?
It's how we all got here…..
This is the point. What's the harm in good honest sex ?People say, Oh god you're awful. You say the most godawful things. I enjoy saying it because none of you have the spunk or the guts to say it. So I say it. You don't like me , don't invite me for your parties. So that's what it is. I am still trying to understand myself. My father says he could never understand me. None of the people I know seem to understand me. What you don't understand you normally either deride or fight with it, you put it down. So I got lots of people trying to put me down, squash me and I'm a fighter, I don't give in.
Jith Peries wanted me to ask you if you'd consider writing a play…….
Not yet. But I've had an inquiry from a Bengali film producer who wanted to turn the trilogy into a film, I've referred him to Penguin - they've got the copyrights.
When are you going to write a history of Kandy?
That had to follow Colombo. In fact I've decided to call it "Proud Heart". It is the heart of the country, it also has its own sense of pride as the last kingdom of the country. In fact in my mind I have already decided how to start the book with the huge Buddha statue up on Bairavakanda and with it comes the legend of Bavandakanda - the girl sacrificed to the demon etc. Kandy is a must - I've got to do it. Which is why I've already assembled the reading I want. Sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom, Geoffrey Powell's 'Kandyan Wars'. I've taken in all the books I want, all the background that I want so that I don't make mistakes - I can't afford to make mistakes when I'm dealing with my country. Then I've got 'Children of the Lion' in July , then 'City of the Lion', a 1400 page sequel , right up to the fall of Anuradhapura.It is a practical down to earth story of the Sinhala legend . It has a foreword by the Ven. Sorata Thero, high priest of the Elagolla Vihara , Kandy and an introduction by Dr. Nissanka Wijeyratne, ex-lay custodian Dalada Maligawa - sound backing don't you think ?
If you had a dinner party at the end of the world - what five people from any era in history would you invite ?
In fact I had made out a list. I'd like to have Apuleius - the author of "The golden ass". I would also like to have Giovanni Giacoma Casanova. I think Cleopatra would be a very nice person to have at this party - And I like to have princess Diana just for the fun of it and the Marquis de Pompadour, because he had a very Ceylonese approach to everything he did especially when it came to aphrodisiacs. He recommended coriander, curry leaves, all the things we have growing here.
You seem like the kind of person who enjoys being a pain?
Yes, I love it. So, what else is there? I have a damn good time, I lead a very happy life, I make my money the way I feel like it, I edit a business newspaper for the chamber of commerce in Kandy, it's called the Business Voice.
I also edit children's newspaper - the only English children's paper that comes out of Kandy, it's called the Beacon.
The Business voice is done by the Chamber of Commerce. From July, 2000 copies of it are going on Airlanka's flights all over the world. It's one of the best edited business newspapers of this country, and I do it all alone.
You see those pages, that's paste up, I'm doing it now on this machine. That is the June issue of Business Voice, I write every word myself. I have not been a very healthy person - I ingested some sulphur in my lungs and that still causes problems. But I am too old to get a job - I think I must be the only person that you know of that lives full time by writing. I am writing all the time , hoping to do something with these books. I want to ensure that my family is OK , the day that I kick the bucket. I'm 62, I have four kids, two married, they both live with me. One boy is employed in a tourist industry , the other is still studying. So I got a long way to go. I can't afford to look to my convenience , so this writing has become a compulsive thing now. I have to go on. I think my main thing is to do what I can and get out, not with a whimper but a hell of a bang.