Tuesday, July 07, 2015
For some readers the words "serious cricket novel" are off-putting. But cricket novels, or rather their creators, know this, and assume in the reader a position of ignorance, or perhaps even of hostility, to the game. Early on, our narrator writes: "If you've never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can't understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you." Let us take this sales pitch – as it is so described – at face value (but not with an entirely straight face).
A "Chinaman" in cricket is a particular delivery, a slower ball designed to fool the batsman into thinking it will bounce in the opposite direction to the one it does. It also, in Sri Lankan argot, is a term indicating gullibility. Likewise, the novel has two poles, and twists enough to wrong-foot the reader. On one level, it is the self-narrated account of a dying cricket journalist's attempt to make a documentary, and write a book, about Pradeep Mathew, who during the 1980s was Sri Lanka's most devastating and talented spin bowler, but who has mysteriously disappeared not only from the country but from the historical record; he may very well be dead.
On another level, or rather inconspicuously yet ominously trundling alongside this narrative, it is the story of Sri Lanka in the late 20th century: a country torn apart by terrorism and corruption, where old-boy networks are key, and where you can be killed horribly if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time: "The men with clubs and knives stormed the bus and asked passengers to speak Sinhala, to say words that Tamils found difficult to pronounce, like baaldiya. Irangani and Sabi passed the test, an elderly gentleman in front did not. He was dragged out and set on fire."
The voice Karunatilaka has chosen to tell this story belongs to WG Karunasena, who takes great pride in his first two initials, and who has named his son Garfield, after Gary Sobers, perhaps the greatest all-rounder the game has ever seen. However, Garfield Karunasena is, for most of the book, a bit of a drop-out: a dope-smoking bass player with no interest in cricket at all. His father's career is down the pan, and he has decided to drink himself to death. But at least before he does so he hopes to find out what has happened to Pradeep Mathew, half-Sinhalese, half-Tamil, possessed of such outrageous gifts that he is able to mimic the style of any bowler he sees – even being able to bowl equally well with either his left or his right hand. He also has in his armoury the double-bounce ball, which in the real world is a sign of shameful, hilarious ineptitude, but in this book is an unplayable delivery, the ball behaving "like a pebble skimming water".