The first author I read this year is not an Australian female writer but a Sri Lankan male one. It was Carl Muller and his book Maudiegirl and the von Bloss Kitchen. I thought it would be prudent to try and read more POC authors this year as well as try to understand a bit more about my own English language literary background and read more Sri Lankan authors.
Carl Muller can come across as crude. His stories about the Burghers (the mixed race descendants of European colonisers and native Sri Lankans) feature life in the raw as it was in what seems to be early 2oth century life in Boteju Lane with all its working class inhabitants and their rather incredible and hilarious escapades. But there is a honesty here – I cannot claim to know if every detail is reflective of the truth of what it was like to live at such a time in Ceylon but there is some truth here that this was life and life was harsh and tough and anything could and would blindside you at any minute. There is some truth to the fact that people gossiped, that people were in and out of each other’s kitchens, that everyone knew everyone else’s business for the most part.
And there are other things that ring true – the desire of the Burgher mother to cook incessantly and feed everyone, the ability for Maudiegirl to be seen as the font of all knowledge on all things domestic, to be able to solve problems and to be capable of terrifying the living daylights of people when required. The squabbles and fights, the yelling of even the smallest bits of information, the sarcastic quips back, the answers to most problems, the attitudes and ideas about other people – they all ring true, they all match up to stories I have heard from my parents’ generation about how they grew up. And it reminds you how fast Ceylon became Sri Lanka, how fast modernity crept in, how fast life changed that people now rarely know their neighbours, rarely know what is happening in their own lane. Carl Muller deals in nostalgia, but not a genteel respectable nostalgia – one that’s raw and honest and shows you everything including the dirty laundry… because that’s how it was back then.
I read this with a bit of shock but a lot of laughter – laughter at recognising things and people I knew or had heard about in these characters.
Maudiegirl is the matriarch who solves everything, the linchpin around which the von Bloss family revolves, with an answer for everything and the first defense of the family realm and a good heart that takes in but a firm demeanor that stands for no nonsense.
Should you read this book? I think yes but be mindful that some things will not be to your taste, some things will shock you and perhaps the best way to think about that is to assume that those bits are a mix of a) being of their time and b) something with which the author chooses specifically to engage, perhaps too much for most readers.
What you will enjoy, I hope, is the slang, the humour, the hilarity of the people and their escapades and the variety of characters, all so Sri Lankan in a way that I am in awe of how Muller has been able to capture them so well. This is his fourth book about the von Bloss family – the others are The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Spit and Polish.
Title: Maudiegirl and the von Bloss Kitchen
Author: Carl Muller
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Literary fiction