Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | A novel about cricket?

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.

The book is set, in part, at the height of Sri Lankan cricket power, when they won the 1996 Cricket World Cup. But his search for Mathew, a bowler who only appeared a few times for the national side, sets him against Sri Lankan history.

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

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