by Daniel Parker
I finished this book with three questions about it : Is this novel a detective story, a social commentary or just a story about a rambling drunk? Winner of the DSC award for South Asian Literature, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, by Shehan Karunatilaka, follows a retired nihilist sportswriter, named W.G. Karunasena, as he sets out to create his epitaph on a mysterious cricket player, Pradeep Mathew.
Mathew is believed by W.G. to be the best player, but due to mysterious circumstances he vanished in the 80’s. Teaming up with his neighbor, a superstitious statistician, named Ari, the pair embark on a journey that involves game fixing, racism and corruption, all taking place during the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
I thought at first that I was going to be spending most of this reading googling cricket terms, so it came as a relief that the book goes through the mechanics in a way that anyone can really gain a grasp at the basics. I was never completely in the dark during the sports scenes and the cricket only seemed to be a side note in the book as a whole. The book revolves around the mystery of a cricket player’s disappearance. This is where the author’s takes the most liberty, from the character’s finding leads through strange dreams, to stories about a mysterious six fingered cricket coach. It’s a story that knows when to divert attention from the countries turmoil to an often ludicrous plot, at just the right moment, never allowing itself to become too serious for its odd ball characters and unorthodox subject matter.
While the novel initially draws people in with the intrigue of a famous cricket player mysteriously vanishing. The novel’s underlying plot about W.G’s self-destructive bouts with existentialism, alcoholism and his deteriorating home life, shine through as maybe being the most interesting parts in the novel. The book never breaks character in its writing, choosing the scatterbrained ramblings of a drunk over a clear coherent straight forward novel. At points the book jumps from cynical ramblings about faith to sports analysis and player statistics. I found it to be charming, although disjointed you are certainly transported to the mindset of someone wandering from arrack blackout to arrack blackout.
Perhaps the most refreshing part is that the novel never preaches any real political stand point. It would be easy to create a piece showing the injustice of war, or perhaps showing the cruelty of one side. For these characters cricket outweighs people being set on fire in the street for their views or faith. For them cricket represents the escape from a nation falling apart at the seams. By not ever getting overly political, Shehan Karunatilaka makes his most powerful statement. What will his nation focus on, the problems destroying their country or a sport?
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a perfect mix of humor and existentialism, enough to leave you laughing, while also demanding an internal discussion.