Bowled over by quixotic quest
IN cricket, a chinaman is a leg-break bowled by a left-arm bowler. Its purveyors are exceedingly rare, Australia having produced only a handful of quality. Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman, winner of this year’s Commonwealth Book Prize, is likewise a rarity: an elegiac, free-wheeling, fictional timeless Test, with a wickedly clever conceit.
Its backdrop is the author’s native Sri Lanka in the 1990s, racked by civil war, redeemed (every so often) by cricket. Its narrator, a sportswriter rejoicing in the name Wijedasa Gamini (W.G.) Karunasena, sets off in drunkenly erratic pursuit of a bowler of the recent past who for one crowded hour may have been the best of all time but who then disappeared, with apparently diminishing traces. Indeed, it is almost as though Pradeep Sivana- By Shehan Karunatilaka Vintage, 416pp, $19.95 than Mathew even took his records with him.
Karunasena is not merely obsessed but obsessed with his obsession, able to observe it, but not to tame it. ‘‘ Does Sri Lanka need more schoolteachers, more soldiers or more wicketkeepers?’’ he wonders aloud. Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there might be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.
And although the parallels are plain to see, Karunasena lays them out anyway: ‘‘ I think of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler. I think of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation. I think of W.G. Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer.’’
Mathew is marvellously imagined. The mystery bowler is a hardy staple of cricket fiction: think of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Story of Spedegue’s Dropper (1928), J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Bruce Hamilton’s Pro (1946).
Chinaman outdoes them all: Mathew cannot just bowl everything with either arm at any speed, including one ball that ascends 60m off the ground and another that changes direction while bouncing twice, but is possessed of such powers of mimickry that he appears in school matches in multiple guises, slathered in sunscreen so as to deflect suspicion.
He’s also as shifty as his bowling and as contradictory as his country: an ethnic admixture of Sinhala and Tamil; an on-field gentleman who walks when he nicks it but also outsledges Aussies and commentators alike; an off-field moralist aloof of match-fixing and political cronyism but who just may have profited by his exit. ‘‘ Sri Lankans veer between jungle law and Victorian morality,’’ W.G. observes at one point. ‘‘ The West respects law, but questions authority. It is us who bow down to lawmakers even as we disregard laws.’’