Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka
15 March, 2012
OK, so a lot of people are crazy about cricket. My parents are glued to the telly everytime it’s cricket season which is most of the time in Sri Lanka. Although I know the rules and occasionally watch the world cup and 20/20 series, I have to admit I’m not such a fan. In fact, I’m just not into watching any form of sport on telly just because I can find 101 things I’d prefer doing instead (including actually playing sports, which I rather enjoy, or sticking pins in my eyeball). So shoot me now.
I had heard lots of superb things about Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman last year at the Galle Literary Festival and it was also one of the Waterstone’s 11 in 2011, but a part of me wanted to say no to reading about cricket. However, I did read a short story by Karunatilaka in Blue: Stories for Adults which is beautifully written, so I lugged a copy of Chinaman all the way with me to Sri Lanka because I like reading geographically when I’m on holiday.
And it is superb. The writing is flawless, clever and funny. There are lots of in-jokes which worked because he didn’t overexplain or be coy. There was just something so smooth about the delivery that I wouldn’t be surprised if he won lots of prizes. And yes, the book is about cricket and the cricket enhanced the story. But only because Karunatilaka cleverly uses the structure and nuances of cricket to tell the story of Sri Lanka and its people without turning it into some sort of a lecture.
And why Chinaman? I first thought it had something to do with China in my profound ignorance. Those of you who are avid cricket fans will know immediately that it is the left-arm unorthodox spin, a type of bowling delivery. And this novel neatly encapsulates this concept.
In Chinaman, we meet WG Karunasena, a dipso-journalist trying to write his last story before his liver gives up. He is on the hunt for Pradeep Matthew, a legendary cricketer who has all but disappeared from the official anals of Sri Lankan cricket and from the face of the earth itself. As WG interviews people, tries to keep his finances afloat, his family together and his friendships intact, he comes up again and again upon obstacles which prevent him from rooting out Matthew. Will he manage to uncover the mystery behind the famous bowler? Why will no one speak of him? And who exactly is Pradeep Matthew?
Chinaman is a vast, sprawling novel that looks into Sri Lankan society from its obsession with cricket, status, ethnicity and religion. You won’t find the paradise island blurb in travel magazines here. It’s gritty, dirty and yet Karunatilaka leaves you a warm picture painted with deft strokes. I don’t think I’ve read another novel about Sri Lanka quite like this one. It’s a modern, clever novel that pulls some swift punches. And I liked that old soak, WG, with his strong friendships and inept handling of government officials.
My one criticism would be some of the stereotypes that seem to crop up in the novel. The leggy ‘modern’ woman, the diplomat who likes boys, the tuk tuk driver… I don’t know, they’re good vehicles for highlighting problematic issues but they’re very common tropes in Sri Lankan diasporic literature. And the novel does tend to deal with city (Colombo) folk as opposed to the rural majority of Sri Lanka which will naturally give a skewed perspective of the country, but then some people live in this kind of bubble their whole life.
However, I’m not surprised Chinaman won the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It’s a brilliant book, doesn’t drip with nostalgia and through humour and unflinching self examination looks deep into the complex, cultural quagmire that is Sri Lankan society. This is more than just a novel about cricket.
Chinaman was kindly sent to me by the lovely people at Jonathan Cape.