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Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Shehan Karunatilaka - 'Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew'

W. G. Karunasena is a drunken old sports journalist who has been informed by his doctor that, if he doesn’t change his drinking habits, he won’t have much time left on the planet. Mindful of this deadline, he has an idea for a documentary and a book that will tell the story of the man he considers to have been the greatest-ever Sri Lankan cricketer: the brilliantly wayward and eccentric (but now largely forgotten) left-arm spinner Pradeep Mathew. One of W.G.’s problems is that he can’t quite give up the sauce, so it becomes a race against time to complete the work before his liver finally gives out. Another problem is that Pradeep Mathew’s details have been erased from the records and virtually no one in Sri Lanka will publicly acknowledge that he ever played for the national team. Having witnessed the spinner’s finest hour in a mysteriously-abandoned test match in which he took 10 for 51 against New Zealand, W.G. is determined to see this project through.

As he tries to complete the research before his own physical collapse, W.G. starts to unravel an unlikely tale of sporting genius, political corruption, match-fixing and organised crime. Strange as it may seem, but the ramblings of some drunk old men really do provide an insight into the four C’s at the heart of this book: cricket, corruption, conflict and colonialism.
The story features actual characters from Sri Lankan cricket and politics, along with composite characters like ‘Graham Snow’, the tough old English pro turned media pundit. Most of the cricket matches mentioned in the book are real, as are their protagonists, but the lines are skilfully blurred between fact, fiction and something that lurks somewhere between the two. If you google ‘Pradeep Mathew’, you’ll find that Karunatilaka has cleverly created an online presence for the character, including a cricinfo profile and crikipedia entry.

You don’t have to be a lover of cricket to be enchanted by this novel. Along with its many observations on Sri Lankan life, ‘Chinaman’ somehow manages to be a history book, a detective novel, a sports biography and, latterly, a moving treatise on the relationship between fathers and sons.

W.G. believes that most of our lives won’t amount to a hill of beans, but, as he puts it: "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”. Like most folk who read newspapers from the back page to the front, he thinks that “Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.”

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