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10th May 1998

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Book review

Spit and Polish - by Carl Muller. Reviewed by Rajpal Abeyanayaka

Muller spits out a mild shocker

Sonnaboy joining the Navy when every body and his son-in-law is going ga ga over the Titanic is quite an occurrence. But Sonnaboy is no Leornardo De Capricio. True, there is a man by the name of Cowpea Perera, who is supposed to look as slender and appealing as De Capricio, but the problem here is that he is the anti hero. His posterior gets regularly perforated by the phallic protuberances of randy sailors, quite so often really. (The alliteration is not from Carl Muller, its snatched out of the English translation from Aristopahanes.) Carloboy doesn’t use words like “perforating the posterior.” He just says it as it is.

The novel is a spinoff, says Carl Muller, from the Penguin trilogy Jam Fruit Tree Yakada Yaka and Once Upon a Tender Time. However, Muller adds that Spit and Polish is a self contained self supporting story. Self- abusive may have been a better word, ( just joking.)

It was SWRD Bandaranaike who shot back to a Burgher friend that “Burghers should Burgher off to Australia” if they feel aggrieved about the Sinhala only revolution that he ushered - in, caring not a whit for the borderline Burghers. Then came Carl Muller, and drove the final nail in the burghers’ coffin. He typecast them as a boozing, pimping fornicating frothing dissipated community of lunatics. Bouts of sanity were spent assaulting others and making Christmas cake.

Methinks Jam Fruit Tree was the greatest feather in the burghers’ cap. They graduated to being a colourful community, adding jism and junthu to this multi cultural melting pot that’s Sri Lanka. Jam Fruit Tree gave the fading burghers resurrection in the psyche of Sri Lanka’s English reading public.

Then of course Penguin went overboard and gave Carl Muller all kinds of sequels. It was like sinking the Titanic four times over. Personally, I didn’t read Yakada Yaka, not being able to get beyond the first few chapters. Same with Once upon a Tender Time.

In Spit and polish, some of the past Jam Fruit Tree dynamic is re created, partly because Muller seems to use new strategies with his language. Also, he becomes more graphic and stark in his descriptions than he ever dared in his earlier efforts, and yes, being more risque than in Jam Fruit Tree is possible, even though that in itself may be hard to believe. He says of Cowpey Perera that he has “taken up upright cylindrical objects of far greater girth before” for instance, and therefore doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.

Inasmuch as he gets bolder, Carl Muller’s humour in Spit an Polish seems more forced. It sounds more like a case of sequelitis, in some places, where Muller is forced to perform the sequel as well as in the original. In a foreword piece, Muller says says “this piece of bilge is offered to all who have ever walked a deck in a running sea and venomous monsoon weather. You need a strong stomach for that .and a stronger one for this.” With this preamble, Carl Muller shows his hand. He has to overreach to shock more than he did in Jam Fruit Tree,. But, an oath or a four letter word repeated too often loses its shock value rapidly. Spit and Polish suffers from this syndrome. There are so many shocks and so many politically incorrect shockers that shock itself loses its shock value. That’s what makes Spit and Polish seem like an effort which was spat out rather than polished.

But, talking about being politically correct, Carl Muller creates a new literary phenomenon by being stubbornly politically incorrect. I mean, the man manages to get published by Penguin India, though Penguin India, with David Davidar is not as politically correct as the British Penguin would be. Indians in any event are not crazy about being politically correct. But, by all standards this book is politically incorrect, and hats off to Carl Muller for taking the liberty. It makes him pungent even at the worst of times.

For instance, it is a time that the United States is allowing same sex sexual harassment cases, and there is, currently, the semi-celebrated case of an oil rig worker who is suing two fellow male workers for abusing him and pushing objects up his anus in the shower. If those kind of harassment cases were allowed, Carl Muller’s navy would have had no time for the Cocos Island mutiny which is documented in the book. Incidentally, Muller interchanges between faction and documentation, and for those who savour history and are nostalgic about the events of the past, the book offers something other than by way of Burger ribaldry. Though Muller is readable ( there is no a doubt about that ) its time to wonder whether Muller can become anything other than the writer of a piece of bilge. Well, that’s his description, not mine. The fact is that Jam Fruit Tree was a piece of bilge as juicy and sweet smelling as any piece of bilge can get.

The book had great atmosphere, and the Burgher ethos was vividly brought alive, crafted. His sequels on the other hand are partly forced. Even Carl Muller would have erectile problems on command. You can’t stand to order.

It appears that Penguin wants Carl Muller to do on command, partly because the books will be read anyway, as there is enough titillation in them for seven generations. But, when it gets to that stage, the books have lost most of their novelty value, that they almost don’t qualify to be novels.

The books become like a collection of centerspread nude photographs, put together as an aid for self-abuse for the lonely and the desperate.

In Spit and Polish, Carl Muller displays snatches , no puns intended, of his earlier Jam Fruit Tree novelty. But only snatches.

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