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Sunday, 9 January 2011

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'Chinaman' is not a cricketing story, thankfully!

There are novels and novels. Some win awards, some don't get published, some don't get the publicity they deserve and end up in dust-ridden shelves at the back of used books stores, some titillate the reader for a while and are duly forgotten, some make it into literature curricula, some are made into films that don't do justice to story, some make bucks and some are called 'classics' deservedly and not so deservedly too. Shehan Karunatilaka's 'Chinaman' won the Gratiaen Award (2008). Got published. Is getting re-published by an international publisher, I am told. Got publicity. I can't see it gathering dust anywhere. Titillated. Not easy to forget.

Too early to talk about curricula-insertion. Might be made into a film (and duly butchered). Might make bucks. Is it a classic? That's the question I propose to answer.

First off, big books intimidate me. Like hell. I am a slow reader to boot. Even page-turners don't speed me up. I like to think it has something to do with not wanting to miss a word or meaning-shred, but I doubt it. I am slow. It took me months to get through 'Chinaman'. Longer than it would have taken me to read most books that long. In short, there was savouring.

Shehan Karunatilaka

I am no expert on the English novel or Sri Lankan English literature. I like books that leave me with a hundred different 'what-ifs' to ponder about. I like books that I can pick up, turn to a random page, and read again and again for the simple reason that I read differently, draw more from the same lines and am richer for it. 'Chinaman' is such a book, except that I think I would leave out the first 50-75 pages.

It was tedious going at the beginning. Shehan has for reasons best known to him played around with real names. Quite identifiable despite the switching of surnames and first names, especially by someone who is a cricket fan and is associated with newspapers. A hundred years from now, no one will know, but right here, right now, it seemed unnecessary. Distracting in fact. So too the technical details about various cricketing terms. A hundred pages less would have still left quite an intimidating monster to grapple with, as far as my preferred story-dimensions are concerned, but I am sure it would not have taken away the narrative and its intrinsic charm.

Good novels give us unforgettable characters and should not give us the impression that the minor characters are add-ons that are hollow. Shehan has given us two believables; the sports writer W.G. Karunasena and the (largely) absent character Pradeep Matthew. The believability comes from the attention to detail, integrity of character, the development of man with all the inevitable warts, including the lies, white and otherwise, and the self-delusion that is the signature trait of our species.

In a way, WG is the easier persona to build. Matthew is tough because he is made to inhabit a real and indeed researchable world where the slightest error in fictionalization can compromise credibility. Matthew is larger than life but utterly fascinating and indeed plausible. Shehan has to contend with a recorded cricketing history, real people, real incidents in real matches, scorebooks and newspaper cuttings. That he has woven a fiction like Matthew into all this is itself an achievement. It has clearly required the author to engage in meticulous research and pick and choose incident and personality in ways that turn a lie into a truth. Paradoxically, the story holds up almost as a narrative that has been deliberately erased, so much like how it happens in real life.

I am not going to quarrel over the details. I will just mention the fact that I was at the 104th Battle of the Blues in March 1983 and saw my friend Rochana Jayawardena returning to the pavilion after his maiden century and at the end of each Thomian inning. There wasn't anyone impersonating him. The beauty of Chinaman, however, is that the author managed to make me wonder. For just a fraction of a second, true, but still!

If this were just a story about a clapped out journalist has-been blundering his way through a crazy life-end project, it would have read well, but would not be worth a second read. What is compelling about 'Chinaman' is that it is at the same time an insightful narrative of the multiple and complex story-threads that make up the overall post-independence social and political tapestry that is Sri Lanka. The telling caresses all these things in ways that illuminate without appearing to be ideology-driven or being prescriptive. The author remains a healthy distance away, making the occasional wise-crack and astute observation without disturbing story-flow or causing reader to side-track.

Whereas many recent novels in English appear to be framed by some kind of god-rule where ethnic-conflict and other 'sad' things about Sri Lankan political life have to be scripted in so that such writing can pass some 'seriousness' check-point, 'Chinaman' doesn't labour the point. Things are, they happen and do things to people. Acknowledged, commented on, caressed and woven as appropriate and not in please-the-minder mode. For this very reason, such commentary as there is, does not appear as frill or as artificial insertion. They enrich character and conversation. They don't distract reader in the insufferably preachy ways that are common in a lot of English writing these days.

Mind you, it is not all 'serious'. All real life characters are clowns, whether they like it or not. The author trips them up, sets them up for tripping and in other ways narrates a story that is both tragedy and comedy, which is what life is come to think of it. WG as well as the minor names in the book made me laugh, made me sad and made me think.

As the days turned into weeks and then to months there were moments when I tried to predict end. Indeed I was wondering to myself 'how the heck is Shehan going to end this?' Towards the end there were many end-moments, I noticed. And yet it didn't and thankfully I was not disappointed; I was happy. It is only an astute narrator that can tie things up neatly at the end. Shehan did.

'Chinaman' is not a cricketing story. If that were the case then those not interested in cricket would find it boring. It is not biography. It is not comedy or tragedy. It has politics in it and social comment but it is not a political novel or an extensive commentary on things social and cultural. It is a lot of things, yes. To me, it is an exquisitely crafted human story where the author shows an intimate understanding of the human condition. That he weaves all these streams into a single-river narrative is worthy of applause.

'Chinaman' won the Gratiaen Prize, I mentioned. It made me think that the trustees should desist from awarding that prize in years where submissions don't make the grade. From its inception, the Gratiaen has encouraged a lot of writing. A lot of second-rate writing has been short-listed. 'Chinaman,' by sheer class, gives us eyes to separate the real article from the mediocre. It is a benchmark, certainly, in English writing in Sri Lanka. Even with those 100 odd extra pages it could do without.

[Note: this review first appeared in the webzine devoted to art and literature, www.ink-magazine .com]

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com
 

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