'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.
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
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
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
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
[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