Shehan Karunatilaka on the ball in “Chinaman”

Kamila Shamsie, courtesy of The Guardian,

A few pages into Chinaman there is a section called “Sales Pitch”. It consists of one sentence: “If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.” This is, in the manner of the best sales pitches, not untrue. No knowledge of or interest in the game of cricket is strictly necessary to appreciate the power and the delights of this novel about a dying alcoholic and retired sportswriter WG (“Wije”) Karunasena, who decides that he will use what remains of his life to make a documentary about Sri Lankan cricket and, in particular, about a neglected but brilliant figure from its margins: PS Mathew. Wije’s obsession with Mathew may form the spine of the book, but it does it in a way that makes it possible to focus on the obsession rather than the cricket if you’re so inclined.

There are also many other things to focus on: friendships between old men, discord between a father and son, love between a man and his wife, ethnic conflagrations in Sri Lanka, the back-scratching and back-stabbing of the powerful, the ruination of a sport through its involvement with bookies, men with self-destruct buttons, conspiracies, the dead coming to life and the living coming to death, fame, ignominy, comedy and tragedy.

With his best friend Ari, Wije sets out to discover what happened to Mathew, a bowler of such unique skills that he could bowl any kind of delivery with either left or right hand. His stock ball, though, was “the Chinaman” (Shehan Karunatilaka’s use of this term, now dropped from cricketing vocabulary for its racist overtones, is not in any way unwitting. He wants to draw our eye to both the beauty and the ugliness within the sport). Yet despite these extraordinary (one might say entirely unbelievable) talents, Mathew played only a handful of international games, the most important of which took place in an empty stadium and was never reported, for reasons to do with bomb blasts by the Tamil Tigers and the personal ambitions of a government minister. The search for Mathew is, we soon realise, prompted in part by Wije’s grappling with the lost potential of his own life as he chooses to race to the end of it, bottle by bottle, unmindful of the wife he loves and the son who has failed him and been failed by him.

But who or what is to be trusted in this unlinear narrative of fragments and fantastically tall tales? Is Wije inventing some, most, or all of it in his inebriation? Are the coaches, players, cricket board officials and Tamil nationalists lying to him? Is Ari inventing stories about Mathew as an act of generosity towards his old friend? Does truth matter when the journey, possibly towards and possibly away from it, is so rollicking?

Admittedly, the relentless back and forth of the narrative can be frustrating, and makes one long for the tempo of cricket rather than ping pong. It is not without purpose – the dislocations and disorientation mirror Wije’s own life – but for a while it diminishes the pleasure of the book, until suddenly it doesn’t. It’s impossible to say if that’s the writer playing himself into form, or the reader getting her eye in. The structure itself ultimately becomes a strength – to tell this rambunctious story neatly wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. So it is a slight disappointment when the novel fails to end where it should, and breaks with its own structure to lead us into that rather tired territory in which a character who gathers up the pieces of the story within the novel reveals himself to have the pen name “Shehan Karunatilaka”.

But these are minor objections. The strength of the book lies in its energy, its mixture of humour and heartwrenching emotion, its twisting narrative, its playful use of cricketing facts and characters, and its occasional blazing anger about what Sri Lanka has done to itself. “Explain the difference between Sinhalese and Tamils?” says the Sinhalese Wije as he pursues the trail of the Tamil Mathew. “The truth is, whatever differences there may be, they are not large enough to burn down libraries, blow up banks, or send children onto minefields. They are not significant enough to waste hundreds of months firing millions of bullets into thousands of bodies.”

To return to the sales pitch. It is not untrue, and yet it also leaves out something crucial: if the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard is leather on willow, if some of the most exciting moments of your life have consisted of watching a five-day match end in a draw, if the most important question around the partition of the subcontinent is “who would have made it into Undivided India’s cricket team in any era?”, if your mind keeps returning to that one extraordinary spell by a bowler (say, Mohammad Zahid to Brian Lara at the Gabba, 1997) who, for one reason or another, couldn’t hold his place in the national side, if no amount of scandal and venality within the game can keep you from spending weeks or even months living in a different time zone from the one in which you’re physically present – then this book could be the best thing to happen to your life since the Ashes/World Cup/away series win against the best team in the world.

Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows is published by Bloomsbury. To order Chinaman for £12.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Filed under cultural transmission, life stories, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, unusual people, world events & processes

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