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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7 thoughts on “Chinaman (2011) – Shehan KARUNATILAKA

  1. Fay says:

    Spot on, Matt. Although I have not yet posted a review, I too enjoyed this novel tremendously. All of the arcane cricket references did not get in the way of a good read.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m recommending it to all my friends who love cricket. It’ll be good to get some culture in them. ;-)

  2. markbooks says:

    Great review Matt – you know how much I loved this book, and I’m glad you did too!

  3. Vidushi Khera says:

    wonderful to see this review. Chinaman also won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature earlier this year and went on to be published in the US by Graywolf Press.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m so glad it’s getting the international attention it deserves – it’s a truly great novel.

  4. […] I can get behind, and certainly the one to which I reacted most positively. Just as I loved it in Chinaman, this fragmentary style allows witty, as well as emotional, asides to act as a counterpoint to the […]

  5. […] Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka Anyone who knows me is aware of how disinterested in cricket I am. I know, it’s un-Australian, but any game that takes five days and requires meal breaks is just not worth my time. So congratulations to Karunatilaka for writing book about an obscure part of Sri Lankan cricket history that I fell in love with. The tale of a drunk old sports journalist, Chinaman is, by turn, funny and heartbreaking, informative and irreverent. […]

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