Sri Lankan author spins a sporting tale

Posted on December 25, 2011

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As written for The National, UAE (November 21, 2011).

As is the case with most Sri Lankan authors having spent a considerable period of time abroad, I expected Shehan Karunatilaka’s accent to have a pronounced Kiwi cadence and tinged with only a slight Sri Lankan nuance, considering the years he spent in New Zealand. But the reality was quite the contrary. Karunatilaka nevertheless gave the impression of a laid-back islander, basking in the aftermath of his novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. His tone conjured coastal images of a beach veteran, lounging in his white linen shirt, batik sarong and rubber slippers. I very nearly reached out for a glass of coconut water myself.

Chinaman, its initial rendition when published in 2008, won Karunatilaka the Gratiaen Prize for Literature the same year. Two years later, and with the newer (and slimmer) edition now on the shelves, Chinaman is now finding itself in the midst of a renewed surge of popularity. With copies in most stores of the subcontinent falling short of demand, and with the announcement last month that the book has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012, Karunatilaka’s novel seems to be succeeding in keeping up appearances as “the great Sri Lankan novel”.

The story revolves around the inebriated escapades of the protagonist WG Karunasena and his more self-controlled sidekick Ari Byrd, and the duo’s relentless quest to hunt down an understated (yet evasive) member of the ex-Sri Lankan cricket team, Pradeep Mathew, who they are convinced is the nation’s undeclared greatest cricketer. Through familial battles, conniving broadcasters, political agenda-ridden cricket boards and even a bout with the Tamil underworld, the book is not for the faint-hearted fan of the sport.

Speaking from his Singapore home, and juggling a nine-to-five career in advertising with his new-found title as an established author, Karunatilaka seems both awed and comforted withChinaman‘s success.

“When I first started researching and penning down Chinaman, I never assumed that it would sell outside of Sri Lanka, let alone the subcontinent. I didn’t even think it would be as well-received considering the genre specificity of the book.”

For unlike most south Asian works of literature, Chinaman veers clear of the more romanticised themes of war, colonialism and the modern societal framework, preferring instead to focus diligently on what Karunatilaka felt was a more relatable theme: cricket.

“Everyone wants to be the next Michael Ondaatje,” he says. “I just wanted to write about what I was most comfortable with, and at the same time about something that would appeal most.

“Of course I wasn’t thinking of the marketing involved in the book at the time. I just decided to risk that there would be enough of a niche of cricket fans to enjoy the read, although oddly enough, the best compliments I’ve received so far are from people who know nothing about the sport.”

This would probably explain, then, how accessible Karunatilaka has made the novel to even the most clueless about the game. By balancing narrative with a ball-by-ball introduction to cricket, the not-so-linear yet fluidly portrayed tale is delivered in a fashion very similar to the double-bounce delivery he describes: with one lob, a chapter on WG’s shenanigans, followed by a bounce of Cricket 101. Also artfully littered with sketched diagrams to aid this chronologically driven story, Chinamanleaves very little room for any layman to complain.

And although Chinaman considers itself a work of fiction, Karunatilaka makes every effort, either through impressively well-documented statistics or teasing invitations, to guess at the GLOB (Great Lankan Opening Batsman), to ensure that the reader walks away debating the intentionally blurred boundary lines of fact and fiction.

How intentional, then, is this amalgamation of real and surreal?

“The concept of a fictitious character residing in an existing written day and age was actually inspired through one of the works of New Zealand movie director Peter Jackson; Forgotten Silver – a mockumentary about the greatest filmmaker of all time.”

Karunatilaka was clearly well impressed. “Although the character was a farce, the entire series was packaged quite authentically. And while I mulled over in what context I could use to appeal to an Asian audience, cricket seemed to me the most sensible bet.”

But how much can the reader take away as fact, and how many pinches of salt must be metaphorically added to the rest?

“You’d be surprised at how much of the book is actually true, for even the more fantastical stories are snippets of what I’ve actually come across as part of my research for it. And although I did toy with the idea of passing off Chinaman as a work of non-fiction, I decided it would probably be best running with an element of mystery after all.”

As Karunatilaka gets cracking on his next book (“strictly no cricket,” he says), he also anxiously awaits the verdict announcing the winner of the DSC Prize on January 21.

“It’s great to be in the running, of course, even though the award is relatively new. And as the only Sri Lankan on the shortlist, this recognition serves to not only garner more interest in the book itself, but also on Sri Lankan literature as a whole.”

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