Lankan Aphrodisiac

Carl Muller talks to Lankan journalist and poet Afdhel Aziz about his critics, his upcoming books and dinner parties at the end of the world.

How do you cope with the critics?

Who is qualified critic that yo know, who can take your book and look at it as a critic and write either charitably or uncharitably about it? Who has come through a school of criticism? Who has got diploma is literary criticism, right? When an author writes a book, invariably, the author send a copy to the newspaper, who calls the sub-editor or a reporter and says: "Here, I,ve got this book. Review it." And bang comes review.

Are you saying that the best criticism comes from a layman?

The best criticism is the type of letters that come from the readers – the people who have read the book. They can say what they like. Now, I´ve had so many people who read the 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." OK fine, but 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 the people who could live together with everybody, which is why in The Jam Fruit Tree I made the observation that while the other buggers are throwing bombs at each other, we Burghers are getting on without any problems.

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.

What have been some of the reactions from the Burgher community? Are they all negative?

There are people who love it and these are the hard-working Burghers in Australia for instance, 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 saying "Send me some katta sambol" or "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.

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. There´s an old duck, a Burgher lady who´s 80 years old and she talks to me about the days when she was young. I keep writing to this old lady and she writes to me about how when her husband used to come back drunk, and she used to get into the dirty clothes basket and hide. OK, so now that´s life. Now what is more fun – recounting all the fun of this Burgher life or trying to show that you´re a very prim and proper person with Wedgewood china in your cabinets?

Tell us about your upcoming books.

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.

Another book 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 – I was actually going to call it Dollar-hu-Akbar, but now I am calling it The Jawbone of West Asia. 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 by 1999.

I´ve got City of the Lion in July, Spit and Polish in October, then Children of the Lion, a 1,400-page sequel, right up to the fall of Anuradhapura. 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.

If you had a dinner party at the end of the world, which 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 Giacomo Girolamo Casanova. I think Cleopatra would be a very nice person to have at this party – she did fantastic things with her mouth. And I´d like to have Princess Diana just for the fun of it, and the Marquise de Pompadour, because she had a very Ceylonese approach to everything she did especially when it came to aphrodisiacs. She recommended coriander, curry leaves, all the things we have growing here.

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