Bowled over by quixotic quest


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gideon Haigh

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.’’

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