Published in Sri Lanka and the UK as “Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew,” this novel has garnered awards (Gratiaen Prize 2008, DSC Prize 2012 for South Asian Literature, and the 2012 Asia Regional Commonwealth Prize) and brought major attention to its author, Shehan Karunatilaka. An advertising copy writer, journalist, and bass player Karunatilaka writes a novel about cricket and its politics which appeals equally to those who avidly follow cricket and those who know nothing about the sport.
The central character is W.G. Karunasena, an alcoholic, washed-up sports writer who is determined to write a biography of a legendary (and fictional) cricket player of the 1980s, Pradeep Matthew. From W.G. or WeeGee, we learn that the cricket star rose from the streets of Colombo and is of Sinhalese and Tamil parentage. He was coached by a mysterious “man with six fingers” and rocked the cricket world. Unfortunately, his phenomenal successes were never recorded for the annals of cricket due to racial and nationalist politics. W.G. is one of the few witnesses to his stunning performance at a key match (that was closed to the public due to the civil war) at Asirigiya stadium. W.G. and other sportswriters were forbidden from reporting the match, but W.G. did break the rules albeit in a tabloid and lost his job. Matthew abruptly disappears from the sporting scene after reportedly marrying a wealthy socialite. Some speculate that he died in Australia or New Zealand and the Sri Lankan politicos, thugs, and bookies who control the national sport do everything in their power to erase all records of Pradeep Matthew’s existence. W.G. and Ariyaratne Byrd (the Sancho Panza to W.G.’s Don Quixote and a cricket statistician par excellence) launch a complex, occasionally misguided, and often dangerous investigation into tracking Pradeep Matthew and documenting his career. Most of this narrative focuses on their quest.
Woven into the story of this obsession with Pradeep Matthew is also the tragic tale of W.G. himself—his rise and fall as a sports journalist, his alcoholism, his marriage, and his difficult relationship with his son. Karunatilaka tells this delightful yet poignant story with plenty of cricket history, drawings of bowling techniques and oddball historical facts such as the first international cricket match was played between the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s.
As narrator, W.G. is irreverent and witty and offers the reader such wondrous insights as “I believe the history of the world can be explained by climate. Year-round sunshine makes you want to sit under trees or dance in loin-cloths. Bitter winters make you want to invent heaters and guns and sail to warmer climes and scalp natives. The comfortable get docile, the uncomfortable busy. Which is why, after centuries of European dominance, the pendulum has started to swing towards overpopulated Asia.”
W.G also has encyclopedic knowledge about cricket, and the reader gets plenty of information about cricket from game statistics to minutiae about every match that Sri Lanka played in the 1980s. It is also hard to distinguish fact from fiction and to trust W.G. as a narrator. Yet, this charming narrative that is seemingly disjointed also has a postmodernist twist at the end. Rather than providing a spoiler, I conclude with W.G.’s opening words: “Here in no particular order. Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.”