Most of the other reviews of this book that you’ll come across have been penned by people who love cricket and understand it properly. But as one who has done her best to avoid any exposure to the game ever since being dragged off to an interminable test match at the MCG by a well-meaning MIL in 1972, I am here to tell you that you can have a deep-seated antipathy to all forms of sport in general and you can rejoice in complete ignorance about cricket in particular - and still love Chinaman, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. All the reviews I’ve seen quote this snippet, and so shall I, because it’s true:
If you’ve never seen a 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.
I loved the novel’s sly wit, its penetrating social and political critique, and its delicious portrayal of human nature. The male friendship between W.G. and his mate Ari is especially well done.
Chinaman is set in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s cricket debut onto the world stage in 1996 when they beat Australia. Its central character W.G. Gamini Karunasena is a has-been sports journalist who has an obsession with a legendary bowler called Pradeep Mathew. With a deadline imposed by doctors who say he has only a short time to live if he doesn’t give up drinking, W.G. and his fellow cricket-tragic Ariyaratne (Ari) Byrd decide to make a documentary about their all-time hero. They are not exactly qualified for this project: Ari (who lives next door to W.G.) is a maths teacher and amateur cricket statistician; W.G. is a print journalist with no experience of film or television; and they don’t have any funds. Whatever money W.G. has to spare is needed to pay tuition fees for his ungrateful son Garfield. (Not named after the cat).
Oh, and there’s another snag. Pradeep Mathew and his stunning history of breath-taking test cricket performances have not only vanished off the face of the earth without a trace, but seem also to be the subject of a cover-up. The hapless reader is torn between believing that Mathew is a product of W.G.’s fevered imagination or that there is something rotten in the State of
Denmark Sri Lanka. This is because W.G. and Ari are armchair experts on every aspect of cricket in Sri Lanka including the similarity between cricket and politics. The favouritism (and cheating) that is a feature of cricket is apparently also endemic in politics: the Old School Tie (a relic of British colonialism) means that just two schools - the Royal School in Colombo and St Thomas’s College Mount Lavinia – feed Sri Lankan cricket, Sri Lankan politics and themselves. For Pradeep Mathew, who didn’t go to either school, some deft wangling must be organised. Equally, it must be covered up.
But that is not all that must be subject to a cover-up. There is also the betting scandal, one much like the one that even I had heard about, that involved the South African cricket captain, Hansi Cronje. He was banned for life because of match-fixing. What if a cricketer is so talented that nobody believes that he could achieve what he does unless the match is fixed? Does that accusation tempt him to cheat anyway?
The hilarious banter between Ari and W.G. often had me laughing out loud and there are running gags throughout. W.G. tells us that when Sri Lankans say ‘definitely’ it means ‘no’ and the duo are adept at using it to make assurances to their hapless wives trying to curb their drinking, to people who lend them money for the doco, and to each other when they are reneging on gambling agreements they have made. There’s also SLT, Sri Lankan Time, which is always 15 minutes late, and Ari’s penchant for dressing-up most notably as Humphrey Bogart. And who knew that Americans were conned into thinking that baseball was invented by civil war heroes, just so that sporting goods maker A.G. Spalding could displace cricket as the most popular game in the 19th century and sell a lot of baseballs?
This is a most amusing book with a serious undercurrent. Winner of the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian literature and the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Chinaman was also chosen by Mark Staniforth as one of his Books of the Year and I recommend it too.
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Title: Chinaman, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
Publisher: Vintage, Random house, 2011
Source: personal copy, purchased from Fishpond, $12.52