Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Questions of Travel (2012) – Michelle DE KRETSER

I haven’t read any of de Kretser’s other work, which includes the Booker longlisted The Lost Dog, from 2007. But when here new book arrived at our store a few months ago, the blurb caught my eye, and I gave it a go. I’m glad this worked out, because – and I don’t want to call it too early – but I think we’re definitely looking at a potential 2013 Miles Franklin winner here.

Unsatisfied by her small life in Sydney, Laura decides to travel to Europe, to find herself. Almost accidentally, she loses herself in the art of travelling, and ends up living in London. Meanwhile, Ravi, a young man from Sri Lanka, falls in love with a girl, and almost immediately after, has a son with her. To feed his young family, Ravi starts designing websites for universities in Sri Lanka, and becomes mildly successful at it. But both Laura and Ravi will be rocked by life-changing events that will force them to question how they live, where they live, and if there’s a future for them.

So what are the eponymous questions of travel? There are a few de Kretser wants us to think about: who travels; where do they go; why do they go there; how does this travel affect you?

There is an inherent danger, I think, in writing a novel with competing narratives. There is always a chance that one will gradually become more interesting, or more engaging, or more thought-provoking. And because I’m a terrible person, I try and pick it. The good thing about Questions of Travel is that there is no bad half. Both narratives compete for your love, and while each ebbs and flows, neither ever feels like it’s dragging, or stretching to make a point about the other.

And the two really do compliment one another. Laura starts travelling much earlier – like all good recently-graduated Australian uni students, she flies the coop to Europe, in the hope of finding herself in what is ostensibly her family history. It’s not an uncommon trope, but de Kretser handles it with care. I like that Laura ends up working for a travel guide company – it’s what we all want to do, but Laura manages to do it.

Her travelling time, though, does eventually come to an end, and like all good birds, she eventually comes home. Tired of travel, wanting to put down some roots, she finds a place to live, with an elderly Greek gentleman. Still finding her family unbearable, she settles down and makes friends with her workmates. Of course, as we move out of the 70s, and into the 80s and 90s, where stupid boardroom talk becomes the norm, and people become more and more obsessed with making money and profit margins and ways to increase productivity, her office life becomes instantly recognisable, and though mundane, it is the new journey she must take.

As Laura travels the real world, Ravi travels the imagined. Connected to the world by the internet, he finds solace and escape from the banality of his own life in things far away he can access from the comfort of his own home. I like that, finally, there is a good novel that deals with the way the internet has shaped so much of our culture over the past twenty years. As a Gen Yer, I cannot begin to imagine a life without the internet, so it’s nice to see someone in fiction deal with the coming of the computer revolution, and how that opened up possibilities previously unimaginable.

Sadly for Ravi, his need to travel rapidly becomes more real. Forced to flee Sri Lanka, he arrives in Sydney with little knowledge of what he has to do to survive. Though I can’t imagine the overlap between refugee haters and de Kretser readers is huge, it’s nice to see someone dealing with what it meant to be a refugee in Howard-era Australia, and providing a sympathetic viewpoint. It’s clearly an arduous journey – even for someone like Ravi who has had the chance to sort out his papers before arriving in the country. By plane, for anyone who’s wondering. Moved to a foreign country not by choice, his journey is very different to Laura’s, and it provides a moving counterpoint.

Surprisingly, for a novel largely set before the present day, Questions of Travel is a deeply modern novel in its sensibilities. It is asking questions of us that focus on how, in such a deeply interconnected global society, we interact as humans. It is so much easier for us to go to Europe, say, than it was even 30 years ago. That has to have an effect on global culture (whatever that is) – though de Kretser doesn’t have any definitive answers. With Ravi’s eventual return to Sri Lanka – despite finally receiving refugee status – perhaps we are to think that home is where the heart is, no matter how hard that is. But then Laura doesn’t feel at home in Sydney, nor London, nor Naples. She seems destined to wander the globe, looking for answers.

Like all of us, really.

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Chinaman (2011) – Shehan KARUNATILAKA

Chinaman, or The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, won the revamped Commonwealth Writers’ Prize this year. It had been on my radar for a while, thanks mainly to Mark’s review, and insistence that I read it. So I ordered it a little while ago, and when it arrived at my house this week, just after the prize announcement, I knew I had to read it. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this fast – which can only be a good thing, right?

The cricket world seems to have a short memory. Why can no one remember Pradeep Mathew, one of the best spin bowlers in the history of the game? W.G. Karunasena (Wije) – a retired sports-writer, and current drunk – remembers, and wants to tell the world just how this young Sri Lankan man became a great player. But finding evidence is hard, and as Wije’s becomes more and more ill, time is running out, and information is becoming more and more scarce.

It’s safe to say that I have little to no interest in cricket, though as an Australian, I have learned a surprisingly large amount of it by osmosis. While our our narrator is keen to point out early on in the novel that no knowledge of cricket is required, I am curious to see how many of the references to famous cricketers non-cricketers (read: Americans) understand – Shane Warne is referred to simply as Shane; Mark Waugh, Muttiah Muralitharan, and a whole host of other famous Sri Lankan, Australian and international players are mentioned with no explanation. Having said this, some of the best parts of the novel are the little asides that explain both mainstream and obscure parts of cricketing rules and terms – Karunatilaka has a way with these little bits of flash fiction, it’s hard not to smile at his explanations of things like the chinaman, or the Duckworth-Lewis System.

There’s a lot to love with an unreliable narrator. It seems almost a tautology to suggest that any first-person narration should be considered unreliable – no character can possibly know the entire truth about everything – but I think a lot of authors forget this. Fortunately, our narrator in Chinaman, Wije, is a loveable drunkard, who seems to have no qualms about telling lies in order to make his story better. Even better, he free admits this, turning the novel into a game for the reader. How much of his story are we to believe? Is it really possible that Mathew had a six-fingered coach to teach him how to spin the ball? Or that he wasn’t chosen for the nation team simply because he was a Tamil?

Wije is a beautiful character, pitch perfectly sarcastic and curmudgeonly. It is not difficult to imagine this grumpy old man going around the island of Sri Lanka trying to find his white whale, annoying people all around him. The angry old man journalist who has pissed off more people than he can remember is hardly a new archetype, but it’s nice to see it put to such good use here. The tone and style of his narration is a joy to read, perhaps because he is just so angry, or perhaps because he is hilarious in his old age.

Big spoilers for the end follow, so look away now if you want to be surprised. The fact that Wiji is so unreliable, coupled with the fact that no one else seems to be particularly willing or able to offer information about Mathews, led me, for a long time, to wonder whether the player was even real. And after Wije dies, for a few moments, I really believed that he didn’t exist. But as Garfield takes up the story in the final act, and he too realises that Mathews is real, the narrative shifts gears, as we find ourselves in New Zealand. It seems desperately cruel that Garfield should be able to pick up his father’s life’s work with relative ease – and then manage to finish the job by actually finding Mathews.

Perhaps the best thing about sport novels is the fact that the best ones are never really just about sport. And with the best of them, Chinaman, too, is not just about a mysterious cricket player. It is a fascinating look at contemporary Sri Lanka, and how it came to be a country split along ethnic lines. There’s a beautiful section where Wiji is asked to explain the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and he is unable to come up with one good difference. And yet, ethnic violence and civil war are never far from the background of the novel, and often spill over into the cricket field, where ethnic politics dictate team selection and game strategy. It’s subtly done, and definitely not the focus of the novel, but it’s that little bit of extra detail that makes the novel seem more whole.

I’ve not yet read any of the other short-listed Commonweath Book Prize novels, but they would have to be really good to top this one. A drunk old man telling us the story of his last days, spent searching for a cricketer that may or may not exist – I don’t think I’ve had this much fun reading a novel in a long time.

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