Postmodernist novels about cricket #1 Chinaman — a review

Chinaman

by Shehan Karunatilaka

(Vintage, 2012, 397p)

The novel aims high.  It dissects Sri Lankan society, it dissects fame, and professional sport, and the mind of its author/protagonist.  At its centre is the search by narrator W. G. Karunasena for the mysterious spin bowling genius Pradeep Mathew.  The picaresque search lets  Karunatilaka expound on everything from the art of spin bowling to the political history of Sri Lanka and the boorish behaviour of Australians.  The protagonist is retired sports journalist, and the book is predominantly his story of how the book came to be written.  Whether the involuted structure is more than a conceit, I am not sure.  Whether it adds to the great deal to what the book has to say, I am not sure.

What I can say for sure is that this book is massively entertaining.  I remember the era of cricket it is talking about, and there is no doubt there were some ‘a ha!’ moments while I read it that a non-cricketophile would not pick up.  And about a third of the way in the energy and novelty does flag for a little while — but I assure you both pick up again.

Oh, and it’s damned funny.  “There I am, asleep under the bo tree, about to be woken up by the rain.  Two millennia ago a man, just like me, abandoned his wife, son and responsibilities to go sit under a bo tree.  Unlike me, that man wasn’t drunk after a cricket match.  And so he ended up becoming the Buddha.”

You don’t need to be a cricket fan to enjoy this novel.  You don’t need to be fascinated by the subcontinent.  You just need to be able to appreciate insight, rounded characters, a riveting story and the tales of a drunkard and a liar.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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