Review : Chinaman – The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

January 7, 2013
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Publisher: Random House India
Year: 2010
ISBN: 9789555236003
Rating: ★★★★☆
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Our literary preferences are often a function of our own literary affectations. Those of us who are foolish enough to aspire to be writers invariably come across a work that we wish we'd created. Like Ahabs, we are obsessively on the lookout for a moment, a character, a way of life, or even an age that we'd like to harpoon with our pithy prose and capture and bring back to shore for the benefit of posterity. Only in our case, we'd rather caress what we ultimately want to possess. It is not the carcass we are after, but a living, breathing thing that will speak to a nation, or a generation. It is the feeling that was nursed by half the adult population of the sub-continent when they read (or didn't) Midnight's Children.

The Moby-Dick of my nascent, but admittedly flagging, literary career is Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman. The author, in his modesty, might claim that the story is simply about an alcoholic sports journalist's quest to reconstruct the life and times of a mysterious spinner who played cricket for Sri Lanka. But for once, the blurbs are not hyperbolic. This is indeed about "much more". Ultimately, the obsessions of a nation are the sum total of the obsessions of its people. And while it may seem that cricket is the real hero of this book, Karunatilaka has masterfully crafted a uniquely South Asian post-modern tale of what it means to be a nation. Unlike much other writing in English to have previously come out of the island nation, it is not the war that drives the plot forward. But Karunatilaka, an advertising professional who seems suspiciously similar to the character of the narrator's son who does a star turn at the end of the story, understands better than anyone how conflict shapes the trajectory of a nation, be it reflected in the selection policy of the national cricket team or the practice of spelling names so that they end with vowels. The little things are usually the most instructive.

More than anything, it is the ease with which Karuntilaka translates the madness of sport and drink, and how they can cause men to teeter on the edge of reason, and ultimately fall off, yet delivering moments of astounding clarity that the sane will uncomplainingly make do without, either in their timidity or their contentment.

Put simply then, like the unreliable narrator W.G. Karunasena might possibly have in his own time: this is a book I wish I'd written. 



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