January 20, 2012 by markstani
In my life I have seen beauty only twice. I’m not talking Tharuniya magazine front-cover beauty. I’m talking staggering beauty. Something so beautiful it can make you cry. Sixty-four years, two things of beauty. One I have failed to cherish, the other I might yet be able to.
Sheila at the Galle Face Hotel, 31st Nite Dinner Dance, 1963.
PS Mathew vs New Zealand, at Asgiriya, 1987.
Sports writer W.G. Karunasena is drinking himself to death. The way he sees it, he has no choice. He needs the arack to sustain him through his final assignment: to resolve the mystery of Pradeep Mathew, the greatest bowler he has ever seen, and a man whose fleeting fame and subsequent deletion from cricket history begs unfathomable questions.
In Chinaman, Karunasena, fondly known as Wijie by his friends and neighbours, and the most unreliable of narrators, given he is blind drunk most of the time, scours the Sri Lankan cricket hinterland in his quest for answers.
He encounters bent officials, busty media executives, gangsters, paedophiles and midgets, all of whom seem to have their own vested interests in either hiding or entirely misrepresenting Mathew’s story.
What Shehan Karunatilaka has fashioned is, like Mathew’s legendary delivery itself, a great, double-bouncing googly of a debut novel. It is by turns inebriated, bewildering and uproarious; a unique and dischordant symphony of tall stories, Sri Lanka-style.
Karunatilaka has taken a brave step into that in-between world in which fiction and fictional characters are melded into an existing, factual framework. Most of the cricket matches are real, as are their protagonists, but the line is blurred to the extent that Mathew often interacts with them. The book’s inherent unpredictability soon makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction, and this serves to perpetuate the Mathew myth: he may well be the greatest spin bowler the world has ever seen. Or he might just never have existed at all.
If it is first and foremost a novel about cricket, and a timely exploration of the roots of the match-fixing scandal which still grips the game, it is also so much more. As Karunasena opines early in the book:
If you’ve never seena cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.
‘Chinaman’ presents a rare insight into a modern Sri Lanka still (then) in the grip of the Tamil Tiger insurgency. On an individual level, it describes the determination of an ailing, ageing sports writer to take his last chance to make a mark in both his professional and personal lives. Sports writing can be the most vicarious of professions, in which even its finest exponents are forced to measure their achievements not through their own pen, but the greatness of others. It is almost as if, by restoring the memory of Mathew, Karunasena believes he will go some way towards making up for his own missed opportunities.
It is unnerving to think that the dead walk among us and are invisible, particularly if you are a curvaceous young girl about to take a bath. But it is as likely an explanation as any, if you believe in a soul, which even godless W.G. Karunasena does. When we feel despair, it is a thousand-year-old spirit cursing in our ear; when we feel craving it is a drunk apparition coaxing our tongue.
‘Chinaman’ is an incredibly difficult book to describe in a way that does it full justice. The topics it raises go way beyond the boundary. It breaks just about every literary convention going: there are false starts, blind alleys and contradictions, and by the time you reach the reality-stretching coincidence which heralds this truly brilliant book’s final pages, it will seem entirely fitting.
The richly deserved winner of this year’s prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian literature, ‘Chinaman’ indicates that Karunatilaka’s talent will sustain much longer than that of Mathew ever did, or might have done.
Chinaman is out now in hardback (pub. Jonathan Cape). It is released in paperback in April by Vintage.