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The novel turns, turns, turns

columns Updated: Feb 12, 2011 00:46 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Shehan Karunatilaka
Random house india
n Rs499 n pp 408

To see Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew as a 'cricket novel' would be to miss the wood for the willow. This is novel-writing (and novel-reading) as it was advertised in the original catalogue by the likes of Rabelais and Cervantes: filching all the weapons in the armoury of writing to create strange mutants that are part-storytelling, part-cataloguing, part-philosophising and part-playing with your head.

Chinaman inhabits a world dripping with booze, old men remembering other old men — overwhelmingly one-time cricketers — to find some value in their youth, and a sense of decay that seems like the force of gravity throughout the book. While the title makes Pradeep Mathew — who, in the parallel universe in which Karunatilaka's novel resides, plays only four Test matches for Sri Lanka leaving an astounding bowling record before he mysteriously vanishes — seem like the protagonist, the world of Chinaman has the figure of retired sportswriter WG Karunasena, battling against two deadlines (one being the moment of his alcohol-induced death), at its core.

Karunasena's search for Mathew is not unlike the impatient waiting for a 'known unknown' by two tramps in a Beckett play. If a self-contained world, riven with passages constantly leading up and down and sideways into the real world in which we live, has finally appeared, it's Chinaman. If readers get daunted by the mistaken notion that literary fiction of such calibre can't be entertaining, that's their problem, their loss.