REVIEW by Megan Jones

NWR Issue 97


by Shehan Karunatilaka

If I had stumbled across Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman in a bookshop, I would have promptly returned it to the shelf. Not because the novel is repulsive, but because it is about cricket. Having never held much interest in sport, I would have happily by-passed this book and that would have been a tremendous shame. This is because although the bare bones of the plot are concerned with the cricketing world, it is fleshed out with the complications of life – which every reader can relate to.

Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012, this fictional autobiography follows WG Karunasena, a retired Sri Lankan sportswriter, as he nears the end of his life. Aware of his impending deadline, he embarks on a wild goose chase to find Pradeep S Mathew, ‘the greatest cricketer to walk the earth’. What results is a hilarious and witty commentary, echoing the style of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The novel hosts an interesting structure, as it is split up into titled, anecdotal moments, rather than lengthy chapters. The various sizes of these segments complement the rambling voice of WG. This configuration also succeeds in shadowing the sheer size of the novel, by breaking it down into enjoyable bite-size chunks.

In the creation of WG, Karunatilaka employs the technique of the unreliable narrator; a narrative device appropriately matched to the nature of the farfetched storyline. The impact of the unreliable narrator is heightened by the final part of the novel, in which the narrative voice passes to WG’s son, Garfield. This secondary voice cleverly both contradicts and reinforces parts of WG’s narrative.

Beyond this, the author’s creation of WG is impressively multi-layered. You get a complete character and that is very satisfying. There is an admirable boldness to WG’s voice that is not afraid to criticise controversial topics such as religion, dubbing the bible one of his ‘favourite wastes of time’. Alongside this, Karunatilaka inserts oddities which reflect WG’s kooky nature, for example; ‘I cannot write. I cannot think. There are birds outside my window. So I will drink.’ The development of these unique personality traits triumph in lifting the character colourfully from the pages of the book and into the reader’s heart.

Deeper ponderings of humanity are also wedged in this 400-page, thought-provoking delight, as WG poses open-ended questions to the reader. For example, ‘has alcohol brought misery to humanity or kept it at bay?’

Karunatilaka’s novel lingers on the cusp of reality, creating a blurring, largely through references within the narrative timeframe, to real-life events such as the collapse of the twin towers. But he pushes this idea further through the placement of photos within the text to illustrate fictional events. For the most part, this does give the storyline a tantalising edge. However, it isn’t immediately obvious that Karunatilaka is deliberately toying with this and I did find it annoying that I had to keep double checking the blurb to reaffirm that the novel was fiction.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the way Karunatilaka seeks to educate the non-cricketer and embrace them in his love for the sport. Karunatilaka tactfully intersperses cricket facts and lingo throughout the novel, gradually building up his reader’s knowledge in a digestible fashion. He even includes diagrams! In spite of his efforts, there are a few moments where the sports lingo does become a bit overwhelming. But for the most part Karunatilaka succeeds in making the world of cricket accessible. Thus, in spite of my unfamiliarity with cricket, the book proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read and a deserving winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize.


previous review: The Red House
next review: Here and the Water


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