One of Sri Lanka’s best-kept secrets is that it ranks consistently in lists of countries with the highest incidences of suicide and alcoholism. Another is that volleyball is its national sport. Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman, features a suicide, several alcoholics and almost no volleyball. It also features a midget, a man accused of pedophilia, match-fixers, terrorists, dodgy government officials, an ambidextrous spin-bowler and more than you will ever need to know about cricket.
For those readers who think of nocturnal insects that chirp when you think “cricket,” have no fear; this book could still work for you. It is incredibly funny, and while it does occasionally meander with the laboriousness of a test match, the heart of this expansive novel isn’t just about cricket. It’s a story about many stories: friendships, rivalries, nationhood, the undesirability of old age, the quantification of genius and other “unknowables,” like how much love do you need in a lifetime, and is sport really greater than life?
WG Karunasena, the 64-year-old narrator of Chinaman, is a grumpy old man in an endearing Walter Matthau kind of way. He’s convinced that “unlike life, sport matters.” WeeGee or Wije, as he is known to his friends, is a retired sports journalist who is dying because he persists in doing shots with breakfast. He loves his wife Sheila, would take bullets for her and their son, Garfield (named after Sobers, not the cat), but he also knows that sport is somehow bigger than this. “In 30 years, the world will not care about how I lived,” Wije says. “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.”
Pakistan: A Hard Country
By Anatol Lieven
In Sri Lankan sporting history, the hallowed year is 1996. It’s the year Sri Lanka beat Australia in the Cricket World Cup final, proving “the possibility of the improbable.” It’s in this post-victorious state that Wije and his neighbor, Ariyaratne Byrd, a maths teacher and fellow cricket fanatic, set out to make a documentary on the player they consider to be the greatest of all time: a bowler called Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, whom no one alive will publicly acknowledge, and whose name has mysteriously been erased from the records. Both Ari and Wije have seen him play, so they know he exists, but there is little else they know. He may have been a product of Tamil-Sinhala union, and he may have had a six-fingered coach. He may even be dead. What they know for sure is that he was a genius with the ball (a master of deliveries such as the chinaman, the floater, and even the double bounce), and he was in love with a girl called Shirali Fernando (described by one of her competitors as being “shallower than a foot tray”).
The legend of Pradeep Mathew and where he might be thus becomes the central quest of the book, leading Wije and Ari into a sordid world of gamblers and gangsters. Along the way Wije and Ari get into fisticuffs over the legality of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action; their friend Jonny, who shares their passion for sport, as well as secretly nurturing a passion for young men, is attacked by villagers and imprisoned; and in the larger background, always referred to with the utmost obliqueness, there are riots, burnings, and wars — domestic and otherwise.