Spinning a good yarn
Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka tells Matt Fleming why he chose to write a book about cricket, the Tamil Tigers... and drunks
Cricket doesn’t sound like an exciting topic for a great read. But the pitch and delivery of Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, is enough to bowl over any reader. In fact, it’s been so effective that some critics are already labelling the text as the ‘first genuine contender for the title of Great Sri Lankan novel’.
Karunatilaka has just visited the fragrant harbour, telling a Hong Kong International Literary Festival forum at The Kowloon Cricket Club about the themes of Chinaman. The Sri Lankan writer uses the nation’s love of cricket in an often-comical and mysterious way to tell his tale. “It’s a drunken detective story that uses cricket as a device to talk about the Sri Lankan tragedy,” he tells Time Out, using ‘tragedy’ to explain his perception of the country’s ‘failings’ over the past few decades. “I’ve attempted many novels, but this is the only one I’ve managed to stay interested in and get published.”
Chinaman follows an alcoholic sportswriter’s quest to track down the greatest cricketer who ever lived, Pradeep S Mathew: a (fictional) Sri Lankan spinner who played four test matches and disappeared in 1995. What follows is a madcap quest that reveals uncomfortable truths about Sri Lanka, drunks and the so-called gentleman’s game – ‘a drunkard and his attempt to make something of his life by tracking down an obscure cricketer’, says Karunatilaka. “On one level it’s a comic quest through the seedy underbelly of Sri Lanka, on the other hand it’s also quite a sad discussion of failed genius and lost opportunity. The best reactions I’ve had were from readers who knew nothing about cricket and were pleasantly surprised by the book’s subtext. Hopefully there’s a few of them out there.”
But why call it Chinaman? “That’s partly a cricket reference, partly a colloquialism,” says Karunatilaka. “A Chinaman delivery (basically a left-arm leg-break bowl) is a rare ball, almost as rare as a Chinaman playing cricket, and seemed an apt way to describe the elusive lead character. But it also forms part of a Sri Lankan phrase, Konde Bandapu Cheena, which refers to tall stories and gullibility, and is perhaps best explained in the book itself.”
Karunatilaka grew up in Sri Lanka in the 1980s amid bomb blasts, curfews and a losing cricket team. He started out writing songs and basslines for rock bands and soon graduated to writing copy for advertising agencies. He quit his job a few years ago to research Chinaman, which won the 2008 Gratiaen Prize and is shortlisted for the 2011 DSC South Asian Prize. “It now gets me invited to places like Hong Kong,” says Karunatilaka.
The author says it’s good to see a new generation of Sri Lankan storytellers ‘moving beyond the clichés of ethnic conflict, colonial romance and tsunamis’. “We’re still far behind the rich literary traditions of India and Pakistan, but I’m optimistic that we can catch up,” he says, adding: “I’ll resist the urge to make a cricket analogy.”
Chinaman has been well received in Hong Kong. “I didn’t really expect the book to export outside of Sri Lanka when I was writing it,” says Karunatilaka, fairly surprised. “After it was published I really didn’t expect it to sell outside of cricket-playing nations. But it appears that readers and reviewers in places like Hong Kong have discovered that the book has appeal beyond its parochial subject matter. A book on Lanka, cricket and drunks doesn’t necessarily have to be about Lanka, cricket or drunks.”
Karunatilaka has started researching his next book, still set in Sri Lanka, but it has ‘very little to do with sports or drunks, thank goodness’. “Other than that,” he adds, “I’m playing bass again and growing my hair. And trying to stay unemployed.”
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is published by Jonathan Cape, priced $221.