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The greatest Googly (n)ever bowled?

Chinaman: the legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman is brilliant. Brilliant, I tell you. If you don’t have a spare Rs. 800 to rush out and buy it right now, then starve yourself/rent a trishaw/sell your grandmother – whatever it takes to raise the cash.

Can we leave it there? No, I suppose not.

But Chinaman is that good. Very possibly the best novel to have emerged from Sri Lanka since… well, since Sri Lanka became Sri Lanka. And it’s not just me that thinks so. When the novel won the Gratiaen Award 2008, it was unanimously selected by a panel who commended it for widening the definition of Sri Lankan literature while still dealing in contemporary realities (polite code for ‘we were overwhelmed by a substantial book [500+ pages] that didn’t once mention mangoes, jak fruit, walauwas, monsoons, destructive marriages, declining dynastic fortunes, or the humorous difficulties inherent in putting on a saree’).

Chinaman is the story of the little-known Sri Lankan test bowler, Pradeep S. Mathew, as researched and narrated by washed-up sports journo WG Karunasena. To hear WG tell it, though, you’d think Mathew wasn’t simply Sri Lanka’s most underrated spinner, but the greatest cricketer who ever lived: apparently, he skittled every noteworthy batsman of the 80s/90s, counselled Murali not to change his (allegedly questionable) action and taught Warne the skidder, and generally made a habit of notching up figures that sent the statisticians scurrying for their copies of Wisden. And then he vanished.

Some attribute Mathew’s ill-fated career to his being Tamil. Others accuse him of match-fixing and other shady dealings (because of his being Tamil?). WG’s summary (p1): ‘Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, powercuts and plain bad luck.’

As for WG himself, when he’s not trying, single-handed, to resurrect the legend of Pradeep Mathew he’s busy worrying about his drink-ravaged body, his estranged son, and whether his arrack supply will run out before his wife does. (It is one of the great strengths of the novel that WG is not a man who eats much fruit, feels moved by the rain on his face, or appreciates the inherent humour in tangly ladies’ garments.)

Set against Sri Lanka’s post-‘96 cricketing euphoria/hysteria, Chinaman is worked up to be variously ironic, hapless, humorous, sad, touching and grim, the novel very naturally incorporating both men’s stories – one mercurial has-been searching for redemption and vicarious fulfilment in the story of another – as well as a fair dose of what might (but need not) be chaos-in-paradise metaphor for the state of the nation in the last two decades.

Perhaps more surprising, given the traditionally arcane nature of cricket and cricket-writing, the book is fully comprehensible to anyone with even the vaguest awareness of the sport. There’s plenty to occupy the cricket geek, certainly, including some classic trivia (The first test match was between which two countries? How much do you know about the Israeli cricket team?); but it is to Karunatilaka’s credit that the cricketing nerdathon always comes second to the story of WG and his best friend, school-teacher-turned-amateur-statistician Ari(yaratne Byrd), as they fumble through their late middle-age, trying to see their great passion to some kind of conclusion before their innings is chalked up on The Big Scoreboard in the sky.

What sustains the plot – crucially, given its basic grounding in the detective genre – is the practical fact that, even for the most extreme follower of the sport, proving or disproving the existence of an erstwhile minor cricketer is no mean feat. Those whose first reaction is to ask, hearts a-pounding, whether Mathew is real – and if so how they could have missed him – will find no easy answers here. Mathew’s near-invisibility, statistically and in the flesh, is entirely consistent with the mysterious context of his life (and the whole point of the novel). His 10-51 against New Zealand at Asgiriya – best ever test bowling – was scrubbed from the record books when the match was denied test status. The best ODI bowling – 8-17 against the mighty Gibraltar (source: fan site, thegreatpradeepmathew.com) was not recognised, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the ICC. Accusations of ball tampering in SL club games saw other astonishing figures expunged. Plus the fact that he began his career, at school level, playing illegally and in disguise for schools he did not attend: perforce, his success was attributed to other players.

This is a fully mature Sri Lankan novel – by which I mean a fully mature novel which happens to come from Sri Lanka. Chinaman is world class, in the sense that it not only bears its own quite considerable weight, but could be read by anyone anywhere in the world, as modern and international as a novel need be. And if there are a few references that are a little opaque to the foreigner, then they are infinitely preferable – both with regard to reading pleasure and the health of the national literature – to yet another ‘Sri Lankan’ novel narrated by someone with one foot in Tooting or Toronto.

It also concerns real, or at least realistic, people. Urban types with not a great deal going for them. People who drink. People who swear when they drop things. People whose cars (and livers) break down. By filtering WG’s extraordinary search through the next-door and everyday – rather than straining for semi-mythical resonance, constructing transparent allegories or wheeling out limp facsimiles of heroes from ancient texts – Karunatilaka finds a short-cut to expressing what lit. types deem to be ‘universal truths’ (i.e. things we’d all like to think we might have expressed given enough moments of clarity). These are people with whom we can sympathise: in the wonderfully cantankerous chats between WG and Ari; the cheery cameos by the likes of doyen Tony Botham (can you see what he’s done there?); the pricking sketches of various cricketing personalities, like the obnoxious wife-beating Yorkshireman who will not be named but who I believe played for England c.1740, sees no merit in any player since (unless they too hail from Yjöorrrk-shee-err), and whom anyone who’s ever listened to test commentary will, at least once, have dreamt of punching in the face.

In terms of its prose style, though, while Chinaman is again commendably contemporary (which is to say that no-one speaks like a civil servant out of a Kipling story), it is, I feel, slightly over-salted with Singlishisms – not of the aiyo and aney type, but of the ‘put it, no, Uncle?’ variety. There are a couple more references to tsunamis than I considered strictly necessary (either metaphorically, or THE…). And I’m not too keen on Karunatilaka’s rather unfussy punctuation. I’d buy the argument that this is how normal folks speak and even write if the bulk of the text were not ‘written’ by its lead character, the professional, prize-winning writer WG Karunasena. (Karunatilaka/Karunasena? Yes, you might be on to something there…)

These are fairly minor reservations. I mention them not because I have any forceful objection to Singlish in representative, characterful speech (or because I fear how quickly these things get off the page/screen and into the classroom, which I do and it does), but because I suspect the book may have done itself out of a chunk of the potential international market as a result. I hope I’m wrong; but we shall see.

One of the best and most striking features of the novel is its very canny double-coda ending (one might even be lured into calling it ‘post-modern’). After the substance of the novel – WG’s research on Mathew – there is a series of appreciations from various of WG’s fellow-characters, followed by the misadventures of WG’s son as he attempts to complete his father’s quest (yes, sorry, the ailing WG doesn’t make it) and get his tome published, amid confusion, obstruction and threats from the seamier side of Sri Lankan cricket.

It’s all cheeky in-jokes and shamelessly self-serving references to, amongst other things, the Gratiaen Award and various publishers with whom the author (Mr Karunatilaka-Karunasena) may or may not have had dealings. So in the spirit of the thing I thought I’d drop Karunatilaka a line confessing my limited knowledge of SL cricket over the decades, and ask that he give me some pointers as to what’s strictly true and what’s not. ‘It’s all true’ came the reply. (Uhuh. You know you’re in the 21st century when a novelist wants you to think he’s writing non-fiction. Also, the copyright page states otherwise.)

So, I resorted to the internet – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that in the last couple of months the web (by which I mean Google) seems suddenly, miraculously, to have registered the existence of both Pradeep Mathew and WG Karunasena.

Of course, in the context of the novel, the real-world existence of any of the characters doesn’t matter one way or the other (though cricket lovers will doubtless spend many hours wrangling over the minutiae of each and every rumour and implication). But literary seekers after truth will be intrigued to note that, in the month or two since I proofed Chinaman, not only has WG Karunasena risen to prominence on the net but so has Kreeda, the sports magazine for which he once penned a noted series of pieces on Sri Lanka’s best cricketers. The Kreeda website offers 11 of WG’s articles, all bearing on Pradeep Mathews, all ostensibly published in the early ‘90s. One is illustrated with a diagram – on ‘flight’ and ‘drift’ – that bears a remarkable resemblance to the illustrations in Karunatilaka’s book.

If it seems improbable that a defunct magazine which, in its heyday, ‘had the circulation of an illustrated [sic.] porn rag’, should suddenly be up and archived on the internet, just try clicking on any of the links. The same goes for a Daily News’ article by Elmo Tafeeq (another sports writer cited, with variant spelling, both in the text – or indeed ‘text’ – of Chinaman and in the Acknowledgements), in which Tafeeq reveals his late colleague was writing a book about Mathew, the manuscript of which was not complete upon his death and which Mrs Karunasena says needs heavy editing.

Then there is pradeepmathew.com – all articles © WG Karunasena – and, of course, thegreatpradeepmathew.com. The latter is ‘Under Construction’ – and let’s assume the ‘s’ on the end of Mathew’s name is one of things they plan to change. Likewise the fact that the 8-17 stat against Gibraltar, is – ahem! ‘8-17 against Bermuda’ – contradicted by the extensively-researched Chinaman (by WG Karunasena, available now in all leading bookshops).

It requires some considered application of time and know-how to ensure that a man who doesn’t exist – or at least whom the internet had never heard of until very recently (which these days is the same thing) – tops the page of half-a-million search results. And it’s a tribute, in a sense – above and beyond being further evidence of the ambition and seriousness of purpose behind the novel. Only in a country this cricket-mad could writing a novel about a cricketer also require one to actually breathe life (albeit retrospectively) into the man. Of course, it’s also a tribute to the power of the web: 20 years ago Karunatilaka could have written this novel and only feared reprisals/fan mail from a handful of statistics-obsessed loonies who couldn’t find the requisite scorecards verifying Mathew’s existence.

Still, there’s not much point becoming a novelist if you’re uncomfortable about making your own truths come true. And in the land where, as the Gratiaen’s founder-donor, Michael Ondaatje, once wrote, ‘a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts’, it is high time we saw a first-class novelist emerge as guardian of that sacred flame. On the strength of this book, it seems Shehan Karunatilaka may just be that man.

DISCLAIMER. Beady-eyed members of the reading public will observe that my name appears on Chinaman’s Acknowledgments page. I am proud to say I contributed some basic proof-reading to the project. Impressed by the neat publicity pamphlet distributed at January’s Galle Literary Festival, I requested, and received, an electronic draft of the full text, for review in these pages. Quickly appreciating both the scale and quality of the book – but perturbed by a couple of glitches – I offered my services. End of story. No money changed hands. Most of my suggested changes were not implemented. No, I don’t think my critical judgement was undermined by several close readings of the text.

As featured in the (SL) Sunday Times.

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  1. A S H Smyth › Living in a ghost town on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 at 1:45 am

    [...] years ago, I wrote the world’s first review of Chinaman, for the Sri Lankan Sunday Times. Last week, I interviewed Shehan Karunatilaka at the launch of his [...]

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