“Wasting talent is a crime,” says Graham.I don’t know if Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is “the Great Sri Lankan Novel” (as some of the publicity has suggested), but it’s a tremendously moving and funny book that works on many levels. It deals with big human subjects such as mortality, regret and self-actualisation, but does so with admirable lightness of touch. It’s a highly engaging cricket book too, one that uses the sport to examine aspects of Sri Lankan history, politics and contemporary life. But cricket isn’t just a MacGuffin in this story. To appreciate Chinaman fully, you need to have at least a very basic interest in the game, even if you don’t live and breathe it the way the man who tells the tale does.
“A sin,” concurs Ari.
I think of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler. I think of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation. I think of WG Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer. I think of all these ghosts and I can’t help but agree.
That narrator is a 64-year-old sports journalist named WG Karunasena (“Wije” or “Gamini” for short), and as the book opens we learn that he is dying, his liver ravaged by years of alcohol abuse. Soon we will gather that Wije’s personal list of his life’s proudest moments includes (in no particular order): his wedding; the birth of his son (named Garfield, after Sobers); being awarded Ceylon Sportswriter of the Year; watching his son hit three sixes at age eight; and “watching Wettimuny at Lord’s in 1984, the first time I realised that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else”. We also learn that a disagreement about the legitimacy of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action turned into the ugliest argument Wije has ever had: “More foul-mouthed than when Ceylon Electricity overcharged me Rs 10,000. Angrier than when my wife found out I had been fired from my third successive job.”
Generally speaking Wije has no illusions about having led a particularly consequential life, but in the tradition of tragic protagonists who have a date with the Reaper, he has one magnificent obsession: he wants to make a documentary about the 1980s spin bowler Pradeep Mathew, whom he considers an unsung hero, the greatest cricketer Lanka ever produced. With the help of his closest friend Ari Byrd, and financial support from a former English cricketer, Wije gets the project off the ground, but there are snags - for one thing, it turns out that Mathew may no longer be alive. And if he is, he’s doing a bloody good job of being elusive. Wije’s search for this enigmatic man will lead him to meetings and conversations with disparate types ranging from cricketing coaches to match-fixers to a mysterious underworld figure.
Among the many notable things about Chinaman is Karunatilaka’s spot-on portrait of the interior life of an old man searching for fulfilment – his loneliness and cynicism, his regrets about his estranged son, his relationship with his wife and friends. (A lovely, unexpected passage three-fourths of the way through the book relates a beachside conversation between Wiji and his wife Sheila that rings so true it’s hard to believe it was written by an author only in his thirties.) Through all his trials, Wije also retains a broad, nihilistic sense of humour – lying on a hospital bed near death while a nurse adjusts his bedpan and his wife smothers him in kisses, he reflects that this moment “is the closest I have come to a ménage a trios in my wretched, uneventful life”.
Absorbing and believable as this voice is, the book’s non-linear structure – darting about like a ball on an uncovered, crater-ridden pitch – is just as effective. The plot is interspersed with little subsections containing asides and bits of information about the game, even drawings; less adeptly done, this sort of thing might have impeded the narrative, but here it allows us to glimpse the inner world of a man who has spent much of his life thinking about the game.
Fact and fiction mix in intriguing ways here: there are references to matches that actually took place – such as this one in the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Series, which was Lanka’s heaviest defeat – but with minor alterations. (In Karunatilaka’s revised version of the match, the eventual result is the same, but Mathew takes five wickets.) There are several mentions of real-life cricketers, but there are also names that mash two or more real-life personalities together, such as “Graham Snow” (a former English captain who, in an amusing passage, bawls about his personal problems to WG and Ari, thinking they are psychiatrists) and “Mohinder Binny”. I thought the use of these composite names was gimmicky, but much more effective is the tantalising way in which Karunatilaka incorporates himself – or at least a character named “Shehan Karunatilaka” – in the book’s last section, which could be a comment on the relationship between a fiction writer and his creations, or the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. Does Pradeep Mathew really exist, it makes us wonder. Who or what is he?
Well, on one level it’s easy enough to see Mathew as a cipher that enables other stories to be told. He can also be viewed as a wish-fulfilling device, a representation of the idea that Sri Lankan cricket could have had a genuine world-beater even in its sorry 1980s – a true force of nature, a bowler who could dismiss such batsmen as Allan Border and Dean Jones with "miracle" deliveries. (Karunatilaka has gone to some lengths to create an online world for the fictional cricketer, including a webpage with photos, stats, articles and a fake Cricinfo profile.)
However, Mathew is also a tragic figure, a victim of countless external factors, and a reminder that sporting genius doesn’t ply its trade in isolation. In the alternate universe described in Chinaman, he bowls one of the great spells in cricketing history against New Zealand – such a brilliant spell, in fact, that it leads to the pitch being declared unfit and all record of the match being erased from the books! He takes on a supercilious Yorkshireman during a TV interview, an improbable instance of a cricketer from a diffident team giving it back to a white supremacist. Years later, he encourages Arjuna Ranatunga to beat the Aussies at their own game by sledging them back, advises Muralitharan not to change his action, and insists that Jayasuriya, the new one-day opening batsman, be allowed to play his natural game and hit over the top in the first 15 overs. None of these priceless contributions to Lankan cricket become public knowledge.
In a fairer world, Mathew might also have been a uniting force in a country sundered by racial conflicts – a cricketing superstar who happens to be the son of a Sinhala mother and a Tamil father. But then sport at its best, Chinaman postulates, can make the injustices of the real world more tolerable, sometimes even balance them out – even if its effects are temporary. “I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports,” Wije says at one point. He retorts that there is little point to anything. “In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities. Nothing of anything will matter. Left-arm spinners cannot teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”
An entire nation was, of course, brought to its feet when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, and the Chinaman narrative covers the sense of wonder and triumph of those days (“Sri Lankans across the world stand taller, believing that now anything is possible. The war would end, the nation would prosper and pigs would take to the air”), while never losing sight of the possibility that it might turn out to be an illusion – a flare of light in the midst of a continuing darkness.
But what a flare!
In 1996, subcontinental flair overcame western precision and the world’s nobodies thrashed the world’s bullies. Sixty years earlier a black man ridiculed the Nazi race theory with five gold medals in Berlin before Mein Fuhrer’s furious eyes.[Here's an old post about my relationship with cricket, which coincidentally began just before the 1996 World Cup. And here's a piece I did for Cricinfo about the two cricket-loving fops in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes]
In real life, justice is rarely poetic and too often invisible [...] In real life, if you find yourself chasing 30 runs off 20 balls, you will fall short, even with all your wickets in hand. Real life is lived at two runs an over, with a dodgy LBW every decade...
...Unlike life, sport matters.