Chinaman October 16, 2010

Where in the world is Pradeep Mathew?

An ambitious, inventive, must-read new cricket novel from Sri Lanka

There are at least two types of book readers. (I refer to the people who read books and not those new-fangled devices.) The first type read their books in one go, rarely pausing for rumination, reflection or any handwork with pencils or highlighters. If at all, they reflect on the book after they're done reading.

Then there is the rare type - those who cannot read a book without obliterating it with dog ears, notes in the margin, underlined passages and bookmarks. They convert the reading experience into a process. Perhaps they even stop every few minutes to tweet out interesting lines.

If you are one of the latter, you will take days to get through young Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman. That is even if you really want to finish this brilliant book as quickly as you possibly can. With clever lines on every page, Chinaman is the most tweetable book I've ever read.

In hindsight it appears to me as if Karunatilaka wrote the book with a checklist in his mind: "That's one more page done. Do we have a joke? Check. A brutal dig at cricket? Check. An irreverent swipe at Sri Lankan culture? Check."

A superb work of fiction blended with non-fiction that makes you sit up night after night reading it? Double check.

Chinaman is, mostly, the story of a Sri Lankan journalist's hunt for a long-forgotten, and fictional, Sri Lankan cricket player called Pradeep Mathew. Mathew has a brief, meteoric cricketing career in the late 80s and early 90s that sees him achieve superhuman bowling records. But he vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

As the curious, and increasingly obsessive, journalist, Karunasena, begins to peel back the layers of Mathew's life he realises something is amiss. Mathew has vanished not just from the cricketing scene, it appears he has ceased to exist. His existence has even been expunged from the record books. And there is something disturbingly Orwellian about it all.

Yet Karunatilaka's book is equally about Karunasena. I wish I knew more about the author to see how self-referential this character is. Or maybe they just share Karunas. But the character of the 64-year old journalist is a wonderful device to place the topic of Sri Lankan cricket within the larger themes provided by Sri Lankan society and history.

So on the one hand there is the obsessed, alcoholic journalist, well into the twilight of his career, going in search of a human mirage. But on the other there is the very real world that this journalist occupies. One of his friends is a diplomat who may have an ugly secret that involves little boys. Yet another is a member of Sri Lanka's Burgher minority, who is as obsessed with cricket as Karunasena is. And somewhere in the final third of the book a bomb explodes at a train station. It happens casually, the death toll described as if in an afterthought.

Most of all Chinaman is a book about cricket. Karunatilaka has crafted a thinly veiled version of modern cricket, complete with reviled commentators, horny cricketers, loose women and big, bad money.

Did I say the veil was thin? I meant to say it is almost transparent. One of the book's minor characters is the Turbanned Indian Commentator. Mentioned frequently enough so that after a while he is just referred to as TIC. Earlier in the book there is a beefy English cricketer, whose idea for a documentary is what really kicks off the hunt for Pradeep Mathew. His name is, but of course, Tony Botham.

Karunatilaka skewers cricketers old, new, good and bad, all in style. And with prose that is infectious. Once you get past the first 50 pages, which are the slowest but not by much, the book is - no cliché intended - unputdownable. The mysteries of Pradeep Mathew, combined with the brutal dissection of cricket and the delicious morsels of cricketing trivia come together to form one of the strongest, most immersive plots in a sports novel, or indeed any novel, I have read in a long time.

The book is not without its gimmicks. There are a few towards the end that are particularly laboured. And there are a few occasions where the dialogues seem too smart by half. But all good innings have room for a few hoicks over slip. And Chinaman is a Test match-winning innings-at-the-death watch-over-and-over-on-Youtube kind of a book.

At least one commentator has called Chinaman the first great Sri Lankan novel. Perhaps it is. It certainly is a superb novel. For all cricket fans, especially those from the subcontinent, it is a compulsory addition to their library.

And if you can't stand cricket, this is still a book well worth reading. For sheer scope, ambition and inventiveness. Karunatilaka has smashed this out of the park.

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
by Shehan Karunatilaka
Random House
Currently available in Sri Lanka and online. An Indian edition of this book, due out in January 2011, will be available across the subcontinent

Sidin Vadukut is the managing editor of Livemint.com. He blogs at Domain Maximus. His first novel, Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Varghese, is out now

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