Chinaman

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.

I don’t think I’ve read much erotica, apart from bodice rippers such a few Mills & Boon, Sidney Sheldon, Lace and Jilly Cooper’s infamous Riders at school (well, I did go to a girls’ boarding school). Probably the only other book of erotic stories I’ve read is Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, Story of the Eye by Georges Battaille and some Marquis de Sade, just because of their notoriety. I don’t think I found them all that titillating, maybe due to the absence of romance. The other thing that always bugs me is whether you are prying into the subconscious desires of the author, whether that’s how they do it, and it embarrasses me a little. I’m probably totally wrong here but I’m not entirely sure.

Blue edited by Ameena Hussein is probably the first collection of erotica published in Sri Lanka so naturally I was a little curious as to what kind of stories it might contain. It came tied up in string which I thought was a clever marketing trick. Like with many short story collections, it’s a mixed bag, more so because in the case of Blue there was a mixture of prose and poetry from professional and amateur writers. But it’s experimental and experiment is good for erotica, no?

Of the sixteen tales here, the two strongest were by Ameena Hussein and Shehan Karunatilaka. They were a little more polished compared to the others but that’s probably because they are both published authors, Hussein has several short story collections and a novel, The Moon in the Water and Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman has been chosen as one of Waterstone’s 11 best first novels of 2011.

Undercover, Hussein’s tale of a housewife who finds her thrills in a dark and half-empty cinema in downtown Colombo is a mixture of adolescent excitement and old man smuttiness. Yet it strangely touched upon emotions, love, loneliness and lust and didn’t leave you feeling all that dirty. In fact it was a tale of awakening of sorts and I liked it.

Veysee, Karunatilaka’s story is driven more from a male perspective with a sting at the end. Although I’m sure it happens everywhere, I still get a shock when I read about sex-obsessed teenagers and adulterous smug-marrieds especially in Sri Lanka. I seem to have a rose-tinted view of the country entrenched in village life which no matter how many stories I hear or witness can never successfully erase. The protagonist jokes around with his colleagues at a bar, sex-texts some teen who is more experienced that him and proceeds to dump him, and after several drinks stumbles into a prostitute on the way home when he normally avoids such sordid encounters. You see him slowly unravel as all his swagger diminishes and finally we see him for what he is. Very cleverly done. And funny.

The other tales were hit and miss, some bittersweet, some kinky, all teething. But it’s nice to see a cross-section of talent and tales.

You can read an article about books and bookshelves by Ameena Hussein here.

I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge 2011.