Tuesday, 18 May 2010

"The Jam Fruit Tree" by Karl Muller

Karl Muller is a Sri Lankan Burgher writer and this novel is set in the Burgher community during the 1930s. A community inhabited by Eurasians, with subtle gradations of social standing depending on (1) how pale your skin is, (2) how well educated you are and (3) whether you can trace your lineage to a pure blooded Dutch family.

They are a people who, as the writer puts it "think Dutch but speak English", resulting in the curious form of language in which the whole book is written. They have huge families, the men are much given to gambling and alcohol, and males and females alike constantly think of and practise (with gusto) sex, mostly heterosexual and only partly incestuous.

Muller creates a cast of truly believeable characters, yet most of whom would seem larger than life in any more conventional setting, including the pugnacious Sonnaboy, the deceitful Elva and the matriarch Maudiegirl. This is a rambling family story told over two generations, in which passion, lust, prejudice and petty snobbery are never far away. Above all, the Burghers love any excuse for a party, and it seems that where parties are concerned they are world champions.

Yet the book does not shy away from the bleaker aspects of Burgher life. With the coming of independence comes a political shift away from all things British, as well as an opening up of all the jobs which were traditionally reserved for them, leaving them politically and socially isolated. When Singhalese is made the official language many Burghers, who can only speak English, take the hint and leave, establishing Burgher communities around the English-speaking world, most notably in Melbourne.

This is a fine book, alternately funny and touching. I really enjoyed reading it and have no hesitation in recommending it.

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