Recently, I was talking about literature with one of my friends. The accusatory finger against people like me is that we have been “fed with theory” and arrogance that we have cultivated a habit of “criticizing” things — irrespective of its condition. Something like being critical as an end; and not being a “critic”, and just.
My friend, above, is not a trainee arrogant. She reads for pleasure, mainly. Nor does she read much of Sri Lankan literature written in English. She has read Michael Ondatjee and Carl Muller. She has not read me, she says they are hard to make sense of. Carl Muller was the topic of the eve — his The Jam Fruit Tree, Once Upon a Tender Time and the prospects of what Yakada Yaka would hold for her — a book she hopes to read next week.
What I saw in my friend as she spoke of her experience reading Muller was sheer admiration and awe. Being a stranger to the Lankan literary circuit, she had done extensive research on Muller and was keen in drilling me for further opinion. When I said Carl most probably doesn’t like me, she promised that there is little argument that the fault is mine.
The first time I read Carl Muller, I was little over 16. In a confessional, I would admit that when I first read the The Jam Fruit Tree I, too, was in raptures. To the literature I had consumed by then – a corpus of Punyakante Wijenaike, Sita Kulatunga, Jean Arasanayagam etc – this was a holy shower, no doubt. Carl Muller, being read in 2000, was no doubt a cut above the rest of them all. The wit, the mischief, the sheer brilliance of the story that I was reading — awestruck at the very feasibility of it.
But, here, too, Carl’s eminence is defined by the “lack of it” in the writers that preceded him. But, nonetheless, 1993 can be considered the year that radically opened up the gates for Sri Lankan English expression – pushing back and extending the boundaries within which one may speak of a penis and a cunt; bringing in a whole new “alternative” spirit to narrativization, injecting it with life and possibility.
Carl’s consequent work, however, were less powerful. The fire power of the new found sexual expression in JFT reeled back and recoiled into a quasi-vulgar mould. It is almost as if the writer realized that, in this graphic sexual scenes, he had stumbled upon a goose laying platinum eggs; and now, he was wringing its neck and eggs were being laid. The sexually potent, with time and stress, would become perverse and even repulsive. Once you get to Spit and Polish even the title sounds sexually charged.
My friend admires the courage shown in the writing – to depict reality with that dispassionate rawness. The crude of it becomes a novelty and a genuine cry. Undressing the self-conscious upper middle classism with which the text was wrapped c/o of Punyakante and James Goonawardena.
I would say that progressive Lankan Lit [in English] began with Carl Muller, and that it has now come to crucial junction with Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. To me, Shehan’s is without an ounce of doubt the best work by a Lankan writer — in all languages. His is definitely one of the most refreshing works of my time, if people are willing to lay their egos a bit low. I have written a criticism of Chinaman – the destructive way – but being unable to lay that text bare. The text in itself is so cleverly woven and mischievously put together that it resists criticism and “covers up” what initially appears to be “loopholes” of the narrative. As I write this I have a challenge running – where Dhanuka Bandara and Marlon Ariyasinghe have challenged me to write a “decent criticism” of Chinaman if I can. By “decent criticism” they mean one that deconstructs the text on textual grounds; and not on technical grounds, such as the definition of a googley etc etc.
Right now, I am re-reading Chinaman. I am trying to device a “new variety”, so to speak. At the nets.
It is era-defining work such as Chinaman and The Jam Fruit Tree that make us realize how mediocre the rest of us are. When such work hit the shelf, it automatizes a re-definition process; only if you are less egoistic to see that the paradigm has shifted. Post-Chinaman the world has changed and the universe has re-assigned itself. Lankan English writing has a new definition. The university syllabi and the school texts have now become irrelevant and anomalous. While the Lankan Literary sphere, in its active reality, now refreshed in relation to Chinaman the universities teach Giraya and Sita Kulatunga. The A/L has in it a long forgotten mediocre writer named Subramaniam and a duo dead – both physically and otherwise: Chitra Fernando and Nihal De Silva. The poetry is still predominated by the dead and the dying. We lag behind times and we miss the currents that channel the literary sensibility in creation.