Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka

Jonathan Cape, 2011 (UK)
397 pp.

There is a Sinhalese expression "Konde bandapu cheena," which translates as "ponytailed Chinaman,"  and connotes someone gullible -- someone who will believe anything.   A "Chinaman" in cricket terms is (according to Wikipedia) "a left-handed bowler bowling wrist spin (left arm unorthodox). For a right-handed batsman, the ball will move from the off side to the leg side (left to right on the TV screen). "  The question asked by the narrator of this novel is this:

"Is this a story about a pony-tailed Chinaman bowler? Or a tale to tell a pony-tailed Chinaman? That is for you to decide." 

Whatever your choice may be after finishing this novel, Chinaman is one of the best novels I've read so far this year.  I know jack about cricket, which features heavily throughout the story; no surprise there, considering Americans are far more involved in football, baseball and basketball.  Strangely enough, my lack of knowledge was not a drawback in any form.  The mix of Sri Lankan history, contemporary politics, humor, the characters and the author's prose all come together to make this book an unforgettable experience.

"There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline," notes  retired Sri Lankan  journalist WG Karunasena,  and after a long career of both sportswriting and serious drinking, he has been given  his last one.  His doctor has given him about a year to live if he does not stop drinking;  if WG  cuts down to two drinks a day, maybe a year or two at most.  He decides that it's a good time to do a "halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket", and is obsessed with a cricket player named Pradeep Mathew, who he says, is Sri Lanka's all-time best cricketer.  Mathew was a "top spinner...," "Chinaman, googly, top spinner and that amazing arm ball that god rid of the Aussie captain."   Along with his friend and fellow cricket fanatic  Ari Byrd, WG begins to gather information on Mathew, who has long-since disappeared from the cricket scene, official records  and also from Sri Lanka, seemingly vanishing into thin air.   As they start the documentary project, which will later evolve into a book project for WG, they run into several people who claim to know something about Mathew, and they run into others who do not want WG to go any further with the project. Is there some conspiracy at work here?  As WG and Ari embark on their at times rather strange quest, WG's obsession with Mathew and his discussions about the game of cricket become a vehicle for exploring Sri Lankan politics and history, and life in contemporary Sri Lankan society.  

But there are other considerations at work in this novel as well, both on and off the cricket field  -- relationships within families;  friendships;  politics and money that get in the way of sportsmanship;  old age; the sadness and regret of wasted lives; the inescapable power plays --  all presented in a style that fits well into the story without ever getting overly preachy.   There's WG's old nemesis, once a rival for WG's wife Sheila, who may or may not have had six fingers and who  may or may not have been Mathew's school coach ; a midget who claims to have had an underground bunker and to have secretly taped damning conversations on the cricket field; a friend  of WG who may or not be a pedophile; and there's WG himself, the very center of the novel -- should anyone even believe his ramblings,  considering his alcoholic bent toward self destruction and considering the characters that populate this novel?   The story is punctuated throughout with definitions of cricket terms, diagrams of different cricket techniques, parts of the field etc, largely to help the reader and to move the story along. .  There are also fuzzy photos here and there that may or may not lend credence to WG's search for the truth about Pradeep Mathew. 

Chinaman is funny and downright sobering at the same time, which given the seriousness of the history of ongoing problems in Sri Lanka is a good juggling act, keeping the reader entertained on one hand while exploring the problems of this nation.  And then there's the sports aspect: the author clearly brings out the "magic" moments of sporting events that tie people together:  "sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability.  Unlike life, sport matters." As WG notes,

"In thirty years, the world will not care about how I lived. But in a hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header."
As an American who knows little to nothing about the sport of cricket, at first the book was a bit daunting, even though the author lays out the basics and then throws in bits about different throws or batting techniques.  When I realized that this could be problematic, I went to the internet for help in getting a quick rundown on how this game is played -- problem solved.  Cricket  might be a sticking point for some readers in this country, but ultimately I discovered it didn't really matter -- the overall story is so good and is so well told that my lack of cricket knowledge was only a momentary glitch that really did not distract from the narrative.   The ending may be a bit gimmicky for some readers, but  the book's good points are so numerous that they outweigh any negatives. 

Whether or not you care about cricket, I definitely and highly recommend this book -- it is that good, offering its readers a glimpse into life in another country, and into one man's journey of discovery  in his last months of life. It's a beautiful book, and I hope it finds other Americans to cheer it on.

addendum: One of my online book friends informed me yesterday that this book is going to be published by Graywolf Press under the title of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. According to Graywolf's page (linked under the title), it will be coming out May of this year. 


  1. This book sounds captivating and powerful. I don't know a lot about Sri Lanka and would like to read this novel because of that. As for the subject of cricket, I'd do the same as you and read up on it on Wikipedia or somewhere else. I wouldn't mind knowing more about cricket anyway since I read a lot of British books.

    Thanks for a wonderful and enthusiastic review. I'm going to check out Graywolf Press for this book!

    1. Amy, thank YOU for commenting! The book is currently on my "favorite books" shelf next to The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Definitely go on over to Graywolf -- I'm kind of curious about why they're changing the title when it isn't racially motivated at all. Maybe they think it will sell better, I don't know. Whatever the reason, it's an awesome book.

  2. Graywolf Press is launching this is May in the US. Currently available in UK through Jonathan Cape and India through Random House India.

  3. Thank you! -- I think I noted Graywolf but thanks for letting me know about Random House India.


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