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Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman: A Sri Lankan Odyssey

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Serendipity looms large in Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew so it is perhaps somewhat curious that towards the end of my recent holiday - my first visit to Sri Lanka - I received a mail from the UK offering me an interview with the latest DSC Jaipur Literature Festival prize winner (www.dscprize.com).

There is so much of the constellation of places I visited and of the flavour of the culture I encountered in Karunatilaka's book. Names and words of recent acquaintance conjured up fond images and acquired added meaning: Colombo and the historic Galle Face Hotel; Kandy and its temple of the Sacred Tooth; Sigirya and its ancient ruins; Hatton, its tea plantations and Adam's Peak; trishaws with boxed speakers at the rear; Thambili at Barefoot; Devilled beef and fish curry with hoppers followed by watalappan (of which the author would approve) amidst the mindless luxury of the Amangalla (of which he wouldn't) in Galle; Geoffrey Bawa's architecture; Lanka Ashok Leyland trucks; Bo and Araliya trees; men in colourful sarongs; Paradise Road and a beach which goes by the name of Unawatuna.

Having waxed lyrical about the captivating isle, I must clarify that I am a bit of an anomalous Pakistani in that - in words borrowed from the author - I "don't know a ball about cricket". Ostensibly about cricket - Sri Lankan cricket - Chinaman has other strings to its bow. Thankfully, the book is also gently instructive in the terminology of cricket. Take for instance, the double bounce ball: "A 5 ounce, spherical, leather-bound object made to behave like a pebble skimming water".

The narrative thrust of the book is provided by the phantom-chase for a gifted left-arm spin bowler who disappears from the game, under a cloud, after playing nationally and internationally for Sri Lanka. The investigation which is initially meant to lead to the production of a documentary and ultimately to a book on his life, career and craft is spear-headed by a retired sports journalist, Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena ("Sri Lanka is considered the land of long names" and the book is littered with some delightful ones). The purported objective is saving an unsung hero of sport from oblivion - of re-instating him in the national archive of cricket. In his efforts, Gamini is aided and abetted by his old-time friend and colleague, Ariyaratne Cletus Byrd another cricket-fiend. Inevitably, as the story progresses, the plot thickens: red tape, nepotism, corruption, racism, sabotage, conspiracy, espionage even murder rear their ugly heads.

Gamini, apart from the fabled cricketer who calls the shots in absentia, is the central character whose life is grafted on and feeds off the central quest of the story. You would expect to dislike a man so surly and obsessive and in the hands of a lesser writer he could have grated so easily. It is to the author's credit, however, that despite his foibles, we warm to this cricket-crazy curmudgeon as he embroils us in his longings and preoccupations. We share his loving wife's exasperation with him, we comprehend his son's - an only child - bitter estrangement but at the same time, we are cleverly insinuated into his alcohol-fuelled obsession - the legendary Pradeep Mathew - because in his pursuit is an attempt to ward off ghosts of failure; a search for some semblance of fulfilment in his twilight. It is a last-ditch effort at self-validation.

In his relentless search, he holds up a mirror to our ambitions and aspirations. Gamini is also refreshing in his clear-headedness and lack of sentimentality. In relatively unimportant ways, he is your average, stereotypical South Asian male; in other more important ones, he is not. At times, his accuracy of observation is disquieting as when he compares the two greatest loves of his life - sport and his family: "Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters".

What I was afraid was going to be a challenging read for a person of my limited interest in sport turned out to be a breezy read for the first half and rapidly transformed into a ripping yarn. Humour lubricates the story along. One of Karunatilaka's many strengths is dialogue. The repartee between Gamini and Ari and their Geordie mate, Jonny Gilhooley provides some delicious exchanges. What is perhaps most remarkable is the skill which underpins the elaborate structure of the book and quite apart from charming insertions - pleasant enough in themselves like hand-drawn illustrations and grainy b/w photos - makes the book a compulsive read.

Karunatilaka is very clever with the way he handles information which he concedes in dribs, withholds with engaging little side-shows and concedes again at opportune moments - a sort of nourishing slow-release. The result is a narrative which while it becomes layered gathers in suspense. The end is unexpected and provocative in its blurring of the distinction between narrator and author. Through an ingenious sleight of hand, the pieces of the puzzle fall in place and yet, questions remain. It feels effortless but not pat in the least.

Where Chinaman is a personal odyssey, it is also a reflection on the state of Sri Lankan cricket and filtered through that is the general state of the nation which like its subcontinental cohorts is infested with corruption and ethnic strife. What Gamini says of his countrymen could be equally true of Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis: "In sports, politics, and everything else, Sri Lankans tend to veer between jungle law and Victorian morality".

For Sri Lankan and subcontinental cricket fans this book which "has the passion of street cricket" is mandatory but even for aficionados of sport in general, this book holds many delights. Most importantly, transcending all talk of sport, Karunatilaka's writing deftly intertwines social, historical and political commentary with an engaging mystery in a brilliant literary debut which deserves to be read for that reason alone. I hope this ringing endorsement will allay any concerns on the part of readers who may baulk at the thought of reading a novel about cricket.

From the interview, just the juicy titbit that Karunatilaka is based in Singapore but is contemplating a move to his native land which he feels will aid him in completing his second which he is currently working on. I, for one, can't wait.