Reading history and reviews
Finished on 18th August 2012I would have been the last person to think that I would enjoy this - a work of sporting fiction, about an ageing alcoholic journalist Wije Karunasena trying to track down the talented but unsung Sri Lankan cricketeer Pradeep Mathew years after his disappearance. And yet in spite of my lack of interest in cricket I found it immensely enjoyable and quite compelling, and finished it in 4 days. Karunatilaka is one of those writers with a deceptively light touch and his writing and story-telling feel surprisingly accomplished given that this is a first novel (though I think towards the end it's in danger of outstaying its welcome). There's a lot of humour too, and I even learned some things about Sri Lankan names and the origin of the word "amateur" as someone pursuing an interest through passion rather than as a profession.
It's true that there's a lot of cricket in this book but Karunatilaka doesn't seem to expect the reader to know much about it - in fact early on his narrator even 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." He does explain some aspects of the game (for example the eponymous "chinaman" is a type of unorthodox bowling pitch - although it might also be an allusion to Sri Lankan slang for an unbelievable tale) but really it's more about following cricket: the statistics and the rules, the debates over the players, the politics and so on - almost like a fictional cricketing "Fever Pitch" (although both the style and the convoluted and surreal conspiracies that Wije claims to uncover remind me a lot of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, or even Catch 22).
On another level to me it's also about a more general question about how the world recognises greatness, whether it's in sport or literature or indeed in life. Wije argues that Pradeep Mathew is the greatest cricketeer that Sri Lanka ever produced while at the same time he is also completely unknown - and he wonders why it is that lesser talents should be recognised, that in the end it's not just talent but also luck, timing, opportunity, that determines the legacy that we leave behind. In some ways as entertaining and well-told as it is, the story is a bit irrelevant and perhaps acts more as a hook to hang these various questions on. I found it fascinating and brilliant, and if you enjoy an interesting journey as much as actually arriving then I can highly recommend it.