A novel about cricket? You’re kidding, surely. Where’s the plot in a dozy afternoon in front of the pavilion? At least tell me it is a murder mystery: who killed the spin bowler? Was he poisoned by cucumber sandwich, stabbed by a stump?
Scrub that. Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Vintage, £8.99) has all the passion of a 20-20 match while still managing to be longer and more complex than a five day test.
Hey did you see what I did there? With a novel like this, even a cricket ignoramus like me can get the gist. You really don’t have to be a Test Match Special obsessive to get this book, hailed by some as The Great Sri Lankan Novel. And who am I to argue?
Karunatilaka takes cricket as his central theme – the story concerns a dying sport journalist’s quixotic quest for a Sri Lankan enigma, a spin bowler par excellence called Pradeep Mathew – but along the way manages to serve up far, far more. Perhaps his entire country – and its bloody conflicts.
The narrator, WG – or Wije as he is known – is a shambolic drunk, the kind of hack who would have elt at home in an old Kingsley Amis novel. He’s a rogue, happy to gamble his TV production budget in the hope of doubling it, but of course loses. He can’t help but notice a young woman’s mini-skirt, then bristles when she calls him Uncle.
This was a country in the throes of a highly damaging, and often under reported 26-year long civil war with the separatist group the Tamil Tigers. Although here it is viewed through the bottom of a whisky glass, it is clear that Pradeep’s identity as a Tamil is as crucial as his ability with a cricket ball.
* This review and others appears in The Big Issue, no 999, week beginning May 7